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School sports held back by inconsistent public health measures

A 14-year-old from North Bay could conceivably have been forbidden to participate in a NOSSA championship two weeks ago because it was scheduled for Sudbury but permitted to play hockey in a tournament in Sudbury this weekend
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Two weeks following the disruption of several regional secondary school sports championships — and their ensuing provincial events — due to travel restrictions targeting student-athletes from the North Bay, Sudbury, and Algoma districts, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit now finds itself providing tips for North Bay minor hockey teams travelling to Sudbury this weekend for a tournament.

However, the local Health Unit says this should not be misconstrued as a show of support for non-essential travel to one of the most active COVID-19 hot spots in the province.

"We supported Public Health Sudbury & Districts by sharing their social media post with suggestions to reduce the risks at tournaments, but this doesn’t mean we support the decisions of individuals or teams to attend," says a Health Unit spokesperson.

See related: Neighbouring health unit has 'highest case rates in the province by far'

Thursday, the Health Unit directed posted social media messages at teams and families headed to Greater Sudbury for the Silver Stick hockey tournament. The four-day tournament counts 42 participating teams across six age groups ranging from under-10 to under-15. Four teams from North Bay, plus dozens more based in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, Ottawa, Kapuskasing, Barrie, and the GTA will compete.

According to the Health Unit,  it recommends "teams consider the risk of playing in the tournament given the high rates of COVID-19 cases in many of the surrounding health units, however, the decision comes down to each participating minor hockey association."

The local Health Unit and Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jim Chirico have consistently cautioned against travel to other districts for non-essential reasons. Since late October, with case counts and hospitalizations rising but no formal travel restrictions in place, Greater Sudbury — with its appealing shopping amenities for many North Bay and area residents — became a focus of the warnings from Dr. Chirico.

Chirico also strongly recommends making a risk assessment part of someone’s decision-making regarding travel out-of-district.

"For those who do choose to travel, I ask that you continue to wear a face covering when required, practice physical distancing, wash or sanitize your hands often and if you feel unwell stay home and get tested for COVID-19.  These measures are particularly important if you or people around you are not fully vaccinated," Chirico advised.

He added, "There currently are no travel restrictions in place, however, I do recommend that individuals consider the risk before they travel. It is important that individuals consider if a shopping or other non-essential trip is worth the potential risk of being exposed to COVID-19."

See also: Dr. Chirico 'not ruling out' more restrictions as COVID-19 cases surge in nearby districts

In mid-November, the four North Bay and area school boards announced they were acting on a recommendation from the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit to suspend sporting events and field trips involving the Sudbury and Algoma districts until further notice. The decision to restrict travel in and out of areas with very high virus activity was made due to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the districts of Sudbury and Algoma, according to the school boards.

See: School sporting events and field trips involving locals, Sudbury and Algoma districts halted by Health Unit

And: Health Unit 'supportive' of ban on spectators for school athletics

The travel ban impacted multiple secondary school championships, including girls basketball and boys volleyball last month. For instance, St. Joseph–Scollard Hall's senior boys' volleyball team found out the day before they would not be permitted to travel to Sudbury to compete for the NOSSA 'AAA' title and a berth at the provincial OFSAA tournament.

The OFSAA 'AA' senior boys event won by hosts Chippewa was reduced from 12 to 10 teams because NOSSA did not fill its second entry due to the travel ban and the Timmins area entry pulled out.

See also: Chippewa rolls out the red carpet for the province's v-ball elite

There seems to be a disconnect in enforcing public health measures between neighbouring districts. For example, a 14-year-old from North Bay could conceivably have been forbidden to participate in a NOSSA championship two weeks ago because it was scheduled for Sudbury but permitted to play hockey in a tournament in Sudbury this weekend.

Meanwhile, Public Health Sudbury & Districts is defending its decision to go ahead with the Silver Stick hockey tournament.

PHSD "carefully monitors the number of cases and patterns of transmission in our service area to provide direction and guidance to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. As information is available and trends are assessed, additional measures are put in place. PHSD has been progressively responding to the surge in COVID-19 cases. Local measures are in place with the goal of protecting in-person learning and in-person activities."

Where do the public health concerns regarding unvaccinated, unmasked, non-distanced athletes, especially in an indoor arena setting fit? Or worries about the many families in attendance, perhaps with the unvaccinated siblings of players in tow, who will mix together at arenas, hotels, restaurants, and stores? Those young people will all return to school next week amid their unvaccinated classmates.

"Our kids have sacrificed enough, and Public Health would prefer to not cancel sports events that are healthy and good for kids mental and physical health — if they can be made safe," PHSD states. "In this case, the decision was made to allow the tournament to proceed, with all the added measures that have been put in place, details of which are available in the letter that was shared with organizers participants of the tournament.

"Additional guidance was also sent to all hotel managers within the City of Greater Sudbury recommending additional precautions as well and reminding them of requirements under the Reopening Ontario Act and the recently issued Letter of Instruction. Public Health is also working closely with the City of Greater Sudbury as well as the organizers of the tournament with respect to enhanced COVID-19 safety precautions at the arena."

See related: Public Health Sudbury rolls back the COVID-19 restriction calendar to Step 3

Did the local school boards that followed the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit recommendation err on the side of caution? After promoting the return to school sports as an essential part of the education experience, did the public health situation truly warrant the cancellation of athletics championships, some the day before they were to take place?

If hockey tournaments in COVID-19 hot spots can figure out ways to safely run events with hundreds of participants, perhaps welcoming teams from Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie for secondary school sports wouldn't have been such a stretch? In fact, at least one recent minor hockey tournament held in North Bay included teams from the very areas banned from secondary school sports — with no reported public health catastrophes.

See: Local athletes remain sidelined as some school sports resume in Sudbury

In speaking with several of these young athletes recently, what they and their supporters seek is a level playing field and consistency in the public health measures they are all too willing to follow in order to compete in the activities they are so passionate about.