Facing mounting pressure, Nunavut allows school gyms to host after-school activities

Revised public health orders will allow school gyms and arenas, often communities’ only indoor recreational space, to reopen in time for winter.

Previous order kept limited public facilities closed to broader community

Tugaalik High School in Naujaat, Nunavut. School gyms may reopen for sports and other after-school activities after new guidance from the territory's chief public health officer. (High Arctic Haulers/CBC)

Nunavut's chief public health officer has given recreational sports and after-school programming the green light. It comes amid a push led by Nunavut youth and sports groups to reopen school gyms for public use.

In an update to the territory's public health order on physical distancing, residents will again be permitted to use public gyms for recreational sports and youth groups, provided they do not exceed 25 people or 50 per cent capacity.

The previous policy had sought to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by prohibiting outside groups from using school gyms. But in many Nunavut communities, those gyms are the only large indoor facilities capable of accommodating after-school activities and recreational sports.

In Cambridge Bay, the local youth advisory council recently pleaded with the hamlet to reopen the facilities, saying their closure had a serious impact on youth wellness.

A great amount of my friends have turned to … alcohol and drugs more than they did before COVID-19 hit.- Eekeeluak Avalak, wrestler

"We are seeing a high rate of vandalism from boredom, an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs … [and] a lot more depression," said Deanna Taylor, a member of the youth council, in a recorded presentation they sent to the hamlet.

"There is, and it will get worse as time passes, the loss of motivation."

Eekeeluak Avalak has experienced that loss personally. He's a high school wrestler who's spent the last year dealing with disappointment after disappointment as the Arctic Winter Games and national competitions were cancelled due to COVID-19.

Eekeeluak Avalak, a high school wrestler, said he's seen friends turn to alcohol and drugs while COVID-19 restrictions have kept sports clubs from meeting. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

"A great amount of my friends have turned to … alcohol and drugs more than they did before COVID-19 hit," he said.

"I think it's happening more because the kids don't have a place to go" that's positive, he said.

Before COVID-19, he and his friends would spend time after school playing basketball or watching games in the high school gym. The nearby elementary school would also offer programs for younger kids.

Avalak said getting wrestling back up and running soon "would just make me feel a thousand times better."

Hearing the news of the lifted restrictions, Taylor echoed that sentiment.

"I'm very excited for our youth, and I know this will continue to have a positive effect on our community," she said. "I'm sure everyone's going to be really excited about it too."

A spokesperson for the chief public health officer emphasized that the change in policy was due to increased testing capacity and was not related to public demands for after-school programming.

In other changes to the order announced Monday, arenas can now accommodate groups of up to 50 or half of their normal capacity, and libraries, restaurants and museums can reopen at a reduced capacity.

Nunavut has seen zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 outside of mine sites, where several positive cases have recently been identified amid spiking infection rates in southern Canada.