There is expected to be a return to normal for school athletics this fall after COVID put a damper on the past few seasons. Photo courtesy OFSAA

School athletics set for big fall comeback

By 
  • September 1, 2022

Chad Falk and his team at the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association (MHSAA) were hard at work during the summer preparing for a 2022-23 school year slated to be chockful of provincial competitions.

Falk, the executive director of the MHSAA, told The Catholic Register that his organization relishes preparing for a campaign essentially devoid of COVID-19 constraints.

“We are extremely excited for the upcoming school year. We spent the summer preparing — something we hadn’t done since the summer of 2019,” said Falk. “Last year, while we were able to complete all but one provincial championship, it was kind of a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants scenario. This year we had a normal summer, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Shamus Bourdon, executive director of the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA), said after the provincial government largely lifted all pandemic restrictions in early March, a “very high” number of students participated in spring sports such as tennis and track and field.

“Overall, after the pandemic, there are concerns about the mental health of students. Having sports back in school gave students an outlet once again,” said Bourdon. “And what we heard from coaches is there was a large number of students trying out for teams and program sizes were large. We actually saw an overall increase in roster sizes at our OFSAA spring events compared to previous years.”

Bourdon anticipates the momentum carrying over to a fall competition schedule featuring golf, cross country, field hockey, volleyball and football.

If this state of normal operations remains intact throughout the academic calendar, over 35,000 student athletes in Manitoba and 250,000 in Ontario will take part in school athletics this year.

However, if the COVID-19 landscape takes an unfortunate turn, both associations now boast plenty of experience in responding to these sudden changes nimbly.

“Us, and even our zone and league partners across the province trying to prepare for provincial championships, were scrambling as well trying to reschedule events consistently,” said Falk. “We had to tighten up some of our deadlines, which meant they had to crunch together their seasons to pick the winners and representatives to appear at provincials. Everything was last minute and a bit messy behind the scenes, but we got it done and the student athletes got the opportunity.”

Due to OFSAA competitions being hosted all across Ontario, navigating through the maze of pandemic-induced logistical challenges was even more difficult due to the sheer geographical size and number of jurisdictions throughout Canada’s most populous province. Bourdon said the OFSAA team designed its own protocol and standards document — in concert with the local school board and public health authority — for operating provincial championships during COVID-19 to maximize the odds for success.

Ideally, that document would not need to be consulted again.

When provincials were held in the spring throughout Manitoba, Falk said they were scaled-down affairs with none of the “pomp and circumstance” of normal school years.

Bourdon said that was the case in Ontario too.

“All of our championships include a formal banquet, but our executive council decided against including banquets in the spring. We also decided to limit contacts as much as possible in our logistics. We moved our coaches meeting to online and we shifted our registration process to electronic for safety purposes,” Bourdon said.

Bourdon and Falk both said provincial championships and sports festivals in 2022-23 should largely resemble the look and vibe of 2018-19. One common hurdle they share is replenishing the volunteer official ranks. They said work needs to be done to bring back the referees who offered their time before the pandemic, and to also recruit new personnel.

Also, both the MHSAA and OFSAA intend on ensuring robust high school sports participation by advocating its many mental and social well-being benefits to the students.

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