Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail
When 17-year-old Toronto high-school student Abdullah El-Naid explains why he got vaccinated, he offers two answers: to protect himself and those around him, and to compete in school sports.
So it was devastating when Mr. El-Naid learned late on Wednesday, hours before he and thousands of students were to return to school, that public-health officials in his city told schools to pause extracurriculars, including sports and clubs, for the month of September.
“I thought getting vaccinated would open doors for me,” Mr. El-Naid said. “I feel lost. Sports gives me value. And without it, I don’t find I have any value.”
It can be argued that across Canada, high-school students – more than any other cohort in the public education system – have endured the sharpest edge of the shutdowns. They have lost out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as out-of-country field trips, championship games and many other memories created in a four-year window.
Now, even though teens are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and most provinces have said extracurriculars should resume, the more-transmissible Delta strain threatens to disrupt a third year of their schooling and activities.
On the eve of the return to school, Toronto Public Health recommended a month-long pause on sports, in-person clubs and field trips. Vinita Dubey, Associate Medical Officer of Health, said the pause would take place “while school routines are being established, and to monitor COVID-19 cases.”
“TPH will continue to monitor and assess the COVID-19 indicators and will update the guidance as required,” Dr. Dubey added in an e-mail statement on Thursday.
It is unclear what that could mean for sports that typically start in the fall, including cross-country and field hockey, both of which take place outdoors, and whether they would be able to resume later in the year.
Mr. El-Naid joined the cross-country team at his school, Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute, in Grade 9. He had hoped to continue in his graduating year. He plays soccer competitively outside of school, but school sports made him feel more connected with his classmates, he said. “It’s very sad. I feel like sports is a very big part of high school.”
Similarly, Micaiah Ellis, who is in Grade 12 at Sir Oliver Mowat Collegiate Institute, said that being part of a team is important because high school involves more than sitting in a classroom. He had hoped for a more normal school year now that he and many of his classmates are fully vaccinated.
Mr. Ellis said public-health officials made a “poor decision” in pausing extracurriculars and should have found ways to allow sports and clubs to resume, especially for vaccinated students. He said he was not hopeful that extracurriculars would resume at all this school year, especially as COVID-19 case counts are expected to rise in the coming months.
“If they can’t pull it off now, how will it work in the future?” he asked.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said on Thursday that sports and clubs are important for the physical and mental health of children. “[Mr. Lecce] expects that these experiences will be restored as soon as possible,” she said. The province’s science advisory table recommended a return to extracurriculars, but also cautioned that local public-health officials could implement temporary measures and restrictions depending on how much virus is circulating.
The return of extracurriculars in schools differs across the province. In Peel, public health is not pausing extracurriculars, but in its guidance to schools, it advised them to limit extracurricular clubs in the fall until school procedures are established. The York Region District School Board said its schools will offer inter-school athletics that begin this month. And the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said it is consulting with local public health on how to mitigate COVID-19 risks. “The safe operation of in-person extracurricular activities requires consideration of cohorting, group transportation and volunteers. We want to spend the first few weeks of school helping students and staff settle in and ensure safety precautions are working effectively,” the board said in a message to families.
Public-health officials are “understandably cautious” during a fourth wave, said Alex Munter, head of CHEO, a pediatric hospital and research centre in Ottawa. But he said one way to resume extracurriculars is to require vaccination of staff and students 12 and older.
“At least for middle and high school, this would add one more layer of protection and help make it possible to restore these activities as soon as possible,” he said.
Quinn Baronette, 17, plays field hockey at her school in Toronto. In a normal school year, the sport would be starting in a week or two. Ms. Baronette is fully vaccinated, and she hoped that in her final year of high school, she could have had a more normal one.
“It annoys me. [The vaccine] was supposed to help,” Ms. Baronette said. She added: “I’m really upset, because I wanted to have a fun year with my friends one last time.”
Elias Paisley, an assistant curriculum leader of athletics and a coach at Toronto’s Westview Centennial Secondary School, said students and other coaches were “deflated” to hear extracurriculars were paused. His school sits in the northwest corridor of the city, a COVID-19 hot spot.
Mr. Paisley said he appreciated that public health was being cautious. But unlike many other parts of the city, many of his students don’t participate in sports outside of school. “A lot of participants, this is what they have,” he said. “This may be the only outlet, the only opportunity that they have to be on an organized club or team.”
He added: “We really feel it here. … Let’s hope this is temporary.”
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