Toronto

Students, parents, coaches frustrated COVID-19 rules still sidelining Ontario school sports

While Ontario hockey arenas, gyms and other indoor sports facilities are finally springing back to life, many school sports teams are still stuck on the sidelines due to COVID-19 restrictions. Critics say that hurts low-income and marginalized student athletes the most.

Marginalized students hardest hit, missing out on scholarships, coach says

Devon Jones, a Toronto teacher and founding director of the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education, is disappointed that public high school basketball is currently not permitted in Ontario. He says the restrictions hurt poor and marginalized students the most. (Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education)

While Ontario hockey arenas, gyms and other indoor sports facilities are finally springing back to life, many school sports teams are still stuck on the sidelines due to COVID-19 restrictions — and critics say that hurts low-income and marginalized student athletes the most.

Indoor high-contact sports are not allowed at Ontario public schools at the direction of the province's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore  But the restriction doesn't cover activities such has minor hockey and prep school basketball. Other indoor sports facilities began reopening at the end of last month when the province started relaxed restrictions brought on by the surge of the Omicron variant. 

"Every child has a right to play organized sports. These kids really have nothing right now," said Toronto teacher and basketball coach Devon Jones in an interview.

Jones works with students in the low-income Jane-Finch neighbourhood. He is also the founding director of the Youth Association for Academics Athletics and Character Education, of an organization that seeks to improve access to sports and other programming for underprivileged students.

Jones says it's unfair that private prep school basketball teams are allowed to play while the more accessible and often free public school teams are shut down. He says for many students, school teams are their main access to sports.

'A question of equity'

"Tuition at these [prep] schools is between $15,000 and $30,000 a year," Jones said.

"It's a question of equity and access. Poor kids not having access to structured and scarce resources."

Jones expects the impacts of these decisions will be felt in the coming years as well, with low-income student athletes having fewer opportunities to earn the athletic scholarships that help them pay for college and university.

"We have a huge pathway to post-secondary that has been completely disrupted by this," Jones said.

A Greater Toronto Hockey League player in action. The league, like others in Ontario, has been permitted to restart, but hockey and basketball teams at the province's public schools are still paused. (Erin Riley/GTHL)

A statement from Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce's office says that he supports the return of school sports, clubs and extra-curriculars with public health measures in place.

"He continues to advocate to the Chief Medical Officer of Health and public health authorities that all of these experiences be restored as soon as possible," the statement said.

No timeline for the return of school sports was provided.

OFSAA winter championships cancelled again

Adding to the frustration was a recent decision to cancel the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) championships for winter sports. That means there will be no provincial tournaments for high school hockey, basketball, volleyball, skiing, snowboarding and curling.

For some sports, including hockey, 2022 will be the third straight year the championships are cancelled.

"I was just super disappointed," said Taylor Bertrand, a Grade 9 student at Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School in Burlington.

She says her team was expected to qualify for OFSAA. 

"It's the one thing I was looking forward to going into high school. Kids want to play sports and they're stopping that for us and it really sucks," Bertrand said in an interview.

A petition calling on OFSAA to reverse its decision to cancel its winter championships. (change.org)

In a statement to CBC Toronto, a spokesperson for OFSAA says the decision to cancel is based on a number of factors including the late start to in-person school and activities, and the government's ban on high-contact school sports.

"We've also reached out directly to the Ministry of Education requesting the pause on high contact sports be removed," the statement said.

Stephen Reid is pushing for a solution. His daughter, who's in Grade 11, plays on the same team as Bertrand. After missing her chance at OFSAA in Grade 9 and 10, Reid worries it may never happen.

"There could be a cancellation next year and that would be it. An entire cohort robbed of their chance to go," he said in an interview.

"I was absolutely gutted by the news. I just think it's a completely cowardly decision."

Reid has started an online petition demanding OFSAA reverse its decision and hold the winter championships at a later date if need be.

"Postpone it. Be a little more creative. Cancellation should be the fall-back position, it shouldn't be the starting position," Reid said.

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