It's a tale of two cities — or more precisely two cities' respective school boards and health units.
North Bay secondary school athletes have had to come to terms with returning to classes under extraordinary circumstances and without extracurricular activities. Saint Joseph–Scollard Hall student-athletes say what puzzles them about sitting out the fall sports season is seeing some high school sports resume just over 100 kilometres to the west, in the neighbouring health unit's district.
"I miss them," Jude Caruso says about secondary school sports, "as do my friends and teammates."
Caruso, 15, says, for him "school sports is an escape, it's something to look forward to, not to mention something to get me through the day, especially in these times when we are stuck in the same class all day, every day."
The grade 10 student plays volleyball and says he loves being able to represent his school, misses the camaraderie with teammates, and there is a void without the physical and mental aspect that goes along with school sports.
"Other school districts have gone ahead with their sports program and seeing them excel and getting that escape is very difficult," adds Caruso. "We are of course all happy for them, but wish we could be doing the same."
Dave Makela is the athletic administrator for the Sudbury District Secondary School Athletic Association. He confirms the SDSSAA has scheduled modified cross country and golf events, plus boys volleyball and baseball, and girls flag football in three- to four-team cohorts, designed to observe gathering limits. Play is already underway. Two other fall sports, boys football and girls basketball are considered to have "return to train" status by the Ministry of Health but have not been cleared for "return to competition."
These smaller leagues will not send champions on to regional or provincial tournaments or events sanctioned by OFSAA, as those have been cancelled. How is Sudbury planning to make this work?
"Gymnasiums should only be used where physical distancing measures can be followed. Capacity in change rooms should be limited," clarifies Public Health Sudbury & Districts. "Schools can offer clubs and organized sports if physical distancing is possible and shared equipment and spaces are cleaned and disinfected between each use. Schools are encouraged to consider outdoor venues where possible. Students should practice proper hand hygiene before and after participating in physical activities, sports and clubs and equipment use."
In the Sudbury area, "Two boards have opted in for the individual events so far, while just the Rainbow Board will be taking part in fall team sports," Makela adds. "All relevant Provincial Sport Organization return to play protocols will be followed which was a condition of the local Health Unit's support."
Similarly, each of the four North Bay-affiliated boards that participate in secondary school athletics would have to decide its own course for any return to play locally, in partnership with the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, says educator Tim Lowe, who also heads Nipissing District Athletics (NDA).
See related story: NDA says no to fall high school sports
Although discussions continue in what has been a constantly changing scenario for athletics, so far, there are no signs the NDA is planning a return to competition — even a modified version such as Sudbury's plan — until 2021. Lowe says there is nothing he'd like more than to grant student-athletes their wish but it has to be done safely and there are many moving parts. So far, none of the local school boards have indicated a shift in position on school athletics.
In correspondence, the Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic (NPSC) District School Board says it "appreciates many students, families and staff would like to return to participating in these activities and we look forward to being able to offer these opportunities to our students when it is safe to do so."
NPSC adds, "At this time secondary sports teams are not running at St. Joseph–Scollard Hall however we are keeping in close contact with our colleagues across the province and will continue to explore any opportunities that meet the safety requirements of our local Health Unit and the province."
The board says it continues to work closely with the other local school boards and partners in sport, such as NDA, NOSSA, and OFSAA to "ensure that when it becomes safe for us to begin these activities, we continue to follow the highest safety standards possible and follow the recommendations of our local Health Unit."
Meanwhile, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit says, "The decision in regards to NDA sports was made by the four school boards associated with NDA. The Health Unit supports the efforts of the school boards to prioritize the health and safety of their students, as they continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation locally. Sporting activities of any kind are to follow the Ministry of Health guidance documents."
Further confusing matters for the young athletes is the fact many have been competing safely in club soccer and volleyball through the summer months and ice hockey has resumed in a modified format locally and across much of the province. In North Bay, the Bulldogs flag football league is thriving.
The teens say they also hear messaging about "how well," North Bay and District is doing in battling COVID-19, how we are leaders in the province as far as the numbers go. Yet, they are encouraged to take buses and attend classes in groups but can't play golf outside, at least not as a school activity. The boys say it is not uncommon for students to go straight from their assigned cohort at school to removing masks and congregating in groups of 20 or more the moment they leave school property but they are prevented from competing for their school.
Keegan Ryan, Caruso's SJSH classmate and teammate, agrees there is something missing this year. "It's all about mental and physical health. We're losing a big aspect of high school."
Ryan adds, "A lot of my friends are really missing sports and everything that goes along with it. I really look forward to it, it helps me get through school."
As far as watching sports get underway in Sudbury from afar, Ryan believes something can be done locally. He says if Sudbury can find a way to do it safely, he's not afraid of contracting the virus through safe competition.
"I think we'd be fine if we had a league just in North Bay," he says.