Kyla Martin’s dreams of competing at the provincial high school cross-country championships have been dashed because her board is one of many choosing not to send athletes over COVID-19 concerns. Photo courtesy Martin family

COVID precaution kills OFSAA dreams

  • October 17, 2021

For Sarah Martin, hopes to watch her daughter Kyla compete for a medal at the Ontario high school cross-country championships this fall have been dashed once again due to COVID-19.

Her 16-year-old is a student at St. Joan of Arc Catholic High School in Barrie and was the 2019 Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) Grade 9 champion in the long-distance running sport. St. Joan of Arc is part of the Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic District School Board, which has joined a number of boards province-wide choosing not to send athletes to OFSAA for the fall term due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

After two school years of sports shut down by the pandemic, Kyla and other athletes in the district will only be able to go as far as regional championships this fall. Sports impacted include girls’ field hockey and basketball, football, golf and boys’ volleyball. The Simcoe-Muskoka board’s educational leadership council, which includes the education director and superintendents, announced the decision in late September.

This prompted Martin to start an online petition in hopes of reversing the decision and to give parents and students a platform to share their disappointment. To date it has garnered over 1,800 signatures.

“I just felt heartbroken for so many of those kids that don’t do sports outside of school, that (OFSAA) was taken away from them,” said Martin, whose daughter competes at the club level which will allow her other opportunities to compete. “To me it’s a needless decision. I started the petition because I wanted the students to be able to voice their opinion about it.”

Students have also voiced their opposition and were to host a protest of their own Oct. 14.

While the OFSAA championship events have been given the green light to go forward, each school board has been granted the autonomy in partnership with their regional health unit to decide whether or not to send students. High school teams in London and Middlesex, Elgin and Oxford counties will play locally, but won’t take part in regional or OFSAA competition this season either. 

Simcoe-Muskoka superintendent of student achievement Chris Woodcroft has worked in education for 30 years and coached everything from boys wresting to hockey and tennis. He has seen first-hand the adverse impact the pandemic has had on student athletes, for which sports plays an important role in cultivating mental health and overall wellness. In discussion with the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit over the safe return to play, getting students back out on the field was a top priority, he says.

Regional championships were deemed safe but the difficulty comes at the provincial level where students are crossing into other heath units, he said. Athletes and their families potentially stay overnight at competitions and under those circumstances the board could not guarantee safety.

“We’ve had outbreaks and our first priority is health and safety and to keep our schools open,” said Woodcroft. “We recognize it’s a disappointing decision but the best decision for our students and our staff.”

Martin’s other daughter, Emily, is a Grade 12 student at St. Joan of Arc and has just secured a track and field scholarship to the University of Utah. She too has been able to gain exposure having competed at the club level outside of school. But the impact in opportunity for student athletes who rely solely on school sports is vast, says Martin. Ontario is a hot spot for college recruiters and OFSAA provides one of the greatest opportunities for athlete exposure.

Martin believes any potential safety risk could be mitigated. Frustrated by what she feels is a lack of input from students and parents, she e-mailed the petition to executives at the district level. 

“I challenged the executive committee saying you have the opportunity to say we’ve listened to the voices of parents, of students and we will change our decision,” said Martin. “That was my hope for sure for the fall. Now I don’t have any hope for that. I and other parents and students are very concerned for the winter and spring sports which are just around the corner. I just don’t have any faith and confidence that they will allow OFSAA to happen for those.”

Despite disappointments over opportunities to compete at provincial championships, seeing student athletes safely back competing at the local and regional level is something Woodcroft and other executives celebrate.

“It’s wonderful to see students back on the field and wonderful to see parents spread out on the sidelines,” said Woodcroft. “It’s sort of getting back to normal for sure but we truly believe we need to take a slow cautious move forward to ensure that we can keep this going. We’re obviously hoping that we can make a different decision for the winter season.”

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