Limit extracurricular activities as COVID-19 cases in schools grow, says Etches

Ottawa Public Health is raising the alarm around extracurricular activities, saying they're directly connected to the rising COVID-19 case counts in some of the city's schools.

Linked to 'explosive growth' of positive cases in Barrhaven

Ottawa Public Health is suggesting parents limit the number of extracurricular activities their children participate in due to the rising number of kids testing positive for COVID-19. (Shutterstock / A_Lesik)

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is raising the alarm around extracurricular activities, saying they're directly connected to  rising COVID-19 case counts in city schools.

"These are important activities for children, but they're not the most important activity," said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches in a media briefing Thursday.

"School is the most important activity."

The warning follows what Etches described as an "explosive growth" in cases in Barrhaven schools. 

In an email to CBC, OPH confirmed the neighbourhoods of Barrhaven and Riverside South are currently experiencing rates of COVID-19 that are more than double the average of the rest of the city.

Etches said parents need to consider prioritizing school by choosing one extracurricular activity for their child to participate in rather than several.

They should also choose the activity that carries the lowest risk of transmission, she added.

Several outbreaks in Barrhaven

Currently 10 schools in the Barrhaven area have active COVID-19 outbreaks, with one school having closed.

Many other schools with cases have had "cohorts dismissed," OPH said. There is also an outbreak at a martial arts studio in Barrhaven, with dozens of people testing positive since the end of November.

In response, Etches said "it may be time to pause" extracurricular activities, though she didn't indicate if or when that might actually happen.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches says 'it may be time to pause' extracurricular activities. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

OPH has issued notices to sports leagues across the city with updated COVID-19 measures for when a team member tests positive.

They include requiring high-risk contacts to self-isolate at home for 10 days after coming into contact with someone who tests positive, even if the contact has tested negative. 

Activities good for mental health, say students

While the main area of concern is elementary schools, high school student Emma Beehler knows what it's like to put extracurricular activities on pause.

Beehler plays for her school's band and is a member of the cheerleading squad. She had to stop doing both during the first lockdown last year.

"I was in a bad state of anxiety attacks and depression," she said. "I think with the activities I had, it gives you the opportunity to do something, but when it's taken away, you get that same kind of blow to your stomach."

"It's part of their life. It's who they are and it's part of their identity," agreed Beehler's mother, Natalie Paquette, who is also an elementary school teacher.

"You take that away from them and they don't know what to do with their time."

Kirk Dillabaugh, a teacher and cross-country coach at Glebe Collegiate Institute, said while his students continue to follow COVID-19 measures, he suspects many children and adults are experiencing pandemic fatigue.

He's hopeful there won't be a need to completely suspend all extracurricular activities.

"My worry is that all the sports get painted with the same brush," Dillabaugh said. "We just have to be extra vigilant about making sure that we're following all those safety protocols."

With files from Matthew Kupfer

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