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No-spectator policy necessary to keep high school sports going, say local organizers

Almost 500 parents have signed a petition asking for the school boards to reconsider the policy and allow them to come watch games
20160910 East West Football Game Korah Colts St Marys Collegiate KA 07
Korah Collegiate & VS supporters wrestle with a bag used as shelter from the rain during their team's East-West matchup against St. Mary's College in 2016 at Rocky Di Pietro Field. This year spectators are not being allowed in local high school sporting events in an abundance of caution. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday file photo

A group of parents is petitioning to be allowed to spectate local high school sports, but organizers say empty stands are necessary to give kids the best chance at a full season.

Extracurricular activities including organized sports were scrapped entirely last year due to COVID-19 restrictions put in place by the provincial government. Now that they are allowed again the local school boards made the difficult decision to not allow parents, students or other spectators at games.

On Saturday, high school football teams faced off against each other in the first games in almost two years.

”Although we returned to class last year, we didn’t have the extracurricular for kids and after being away from school and the closure we really felt strongly that the sports and other extracurricular are a really important piece for the kids,” said Joe Maurice, superintendent of wellbeing and Indigenous education at Algoma District School Board (ADSB).

When the provincial government released its return to play guidelines in early August the Huron Superior Catholic District School Board and ADSB began working with Algoma Public Health to determine the safest way to return to athletics.

“The restrictions suggested are what we can do, but then we looked at them and decided what we were comfortable with,” said Maurice. ”There are boards that don’t have any sports right now, there are other boards that are not running some sports.”

A recent petition signed by parents is asking the boards to reconsider the policy and once again allow spectators to come to local games to watch. It currently has 492 signatures.

SooToday reached out to the organizer of the petition, who declined an opportunity to be interviewed for this story.

Maurice said the policy may be reviewed at a later time, but the priority for everybody should be getting kids back to playing sports.

“The longer we can keep our safety guidelines in place where we don’t have a COVID incident, the more likely the season will continue. Having a COVID issue with the spectators could be the domino that puts the whole season in jeopardy — that’s a problem,” he said. “I get the concern and I have empathy for it. It’s not that I am just dismissing the concern, but I think we need to really focus back in on it being about the kids.”

Maurice was pleased with how the first football game went.

“I would say kudos to most of our parents because most of them followed our request to stay away. There is a number of parents who did still come, but it’s a small group compared to the bigger group.”

Paul Orazietti is the head coach of the Superior Heights Steelhawks. He said returning to play has been a big win for the kids in his charge. He estimates about one third of his senior football team found other things to do when play was suspended last year and didn't come back. 

”They just became detached from the sport — some took on apprenticeships and some of them left for university earlier — so we lost a significant number of players because of that,” said Orazietti. ”Just to get back on the field and play a sport they love and socialize with guys they haven’t seen in a year, those are all of the big picture things that matter the most.” 

”Of course adding in the fans would be nice, but in incremental steps — just like how we are re-opening the world — it’s incremental and we are trying to be as cautious as possible and I am fully supportive of that,” he added.

Orazietti said the players have been understanding about having to play in front of empty seats.

“They enjoy having friends, family, girlfriends in the stands,” said Orazietti. “But it’s more calming and peaceful on your sideline when you can focus on just the game and not worry about the antics going on in the stands. From a coaching standpoint there are some advantages to having a bit of a serene feel.”

Maurice said the goal is to keep kids playing for as long as possible, with the possibility of eventually having regional NOSSA tournaments and even a possible province-wide OFSAA for all of the sports being held this year, including football.

Of course, that will depend on the conditions at that time.

”If COVID is raging in Sudbury and they are in lockdown we’re obviously not travelling there for NOSSA and if we had something here we wouldn’t be hosting,” said Maurice.