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Ottawa students face uncertainty over fall sports as other boards mull safety

Oliver Waddington was looking forward to resuming cross-country running at school this month after the pandemic put athletics on hold for the last year and a half.

Oliver Waddington was looking forward to resuming cross-country running at school this month after the pandemic put athletics on hold for the last year and a half. 

But the Grade 12 student with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board was left disappointed when he learned extracurriculars were being paused as students return to classes in-person amid a fourth wave of COVID-19.

Waddington said the board's decision has him concerned about potentially missing out on a key season for university athletics recruitment, and disappointed he may miss his last opportunity to train with friends at school. 

"I'll definitely lose  bit of that motivation to get up and go to school in the morning," said the 16-year-old student who attends Glebe Collegiate Institute.

Waddington said he's planning to train with a local running club in the city but feels for classmates who don't have the resources to pay for extracurriculars outside of school.  

"It’ll be worse for some more than others," he said.

The Ottawa-Carleton board said it plans to run extracurriculars virtually at first, with a plan to pick them up in-person "as soon as possible" in the fall.

"We want to spend the first few weeks of school helping students and staff settle in and ensure safety precautions are working effectively," it said in a series of tweets last week in response to outcry over its plan. 

"We will provide an update on the resumption of extracurriculars in September."

Students, parents and coaches have raised concerns about the policy, calling it overly cautious since many students and teachers are now vaccinated. 

There are also concerns that as the only board currently enforcing such a plan, its students will be left at a disadvantage. 

"You might have two kids who live next door to each other, one goes to one school board, the other one’s in another, and one kid’s doing sports the other isn't," said Matthew McInnes, whose three children attend school in the Ottawa-Carleton board. 

"It doesn't make any sense to me or really to anyone else."

Ottawa-Carleton's decision to pause extracurriculars comes as the Ministry of Education has permitted them to go ahead. 

Other boards are now pondering the measure. The Toronto District School Board, the largest in the province, was still finalizing its plans as of Wednesday.

Cathy Abraham, head of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said the "difficult decision" on cancelling or pausing extracurriculars is likely to happen board-by-board as others consider the potential risks and benefits of offering in-person extracurriculars like sports.

"We just are hearing sort of anecdotally, 'Yeah, I was thinking about it,'" Abraham said in a phone interview.

As boards consider their options, some Ontario public health units have put out their own advice on extracurriculars, particularly on sports, which will pick up as COVID-19 infections continue an upward trend in the province. 

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, which is dealing with rising infections in the community, strongly recommended on Wednesday that school boards and private clubs delay extracurriculars including sports, clubs and field trips until at least October, along with other health measures.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit issued guidance last week for sports event organizers and operators, noting a recent increase in COVID-19 cases and transmission "linked to participation in summer sports camps as well as amateur sports leagues."

"Because those who participate in these activities, particularly those who are unvaccinated or too young to be vaccinated, come into close contact with each other when unmasked or breathing heavily, they are at higher risk of transmitting COVID-19 and the Delta variant," it said in a statement. 

It advised mandatory vaccination for all eligible participants, masks worn when kids are not on the field, active screening for COVID-19 symptoms before every game or practice, limited play between teams and small cohort groups for participation.

In Ottawa, Kirk Dillabaugh, who coaches cross-country and track at Glebe Collegiate, said he's working on a program for the cross-country season that will be ready for the board if and when allows athletics to resume. 

Whatever the decision, he wants it to come quickly.

"A hard no would be disappointing, but you can deal with that," he said. "Uncertainty increases stress levels for everybody."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press