Re-engaging in School-based Physical Activities: Clarity, Considerations, and Future Questions
Applying the COVID-19: Health, Safety and Operational Guidance for Schools (2021-2022) Version 3 (updated September 2, 2021) to Health and Physical Education, Intramural Activities and Interschool Athletic Activities
Returning to the school setting will require careful planning, opportunities for students to re-engage in a wide range of school-based physical activities, as well as, the implementation of new COVID-19 safety processes and procedures. “School boards and schools are expected to employ multiple strategies and a layering of controls to support healthy and safer environments for students and staff”.1
Providing a wide-range of opportunities for students to learn, practice, participate in, and enjoy physical activity is an important part of all students’ day to day education experiences and can provide many positive benefits connected to achievement, mental health, well-being and overall student success. As part of the return to school planning process, it will be important to prioritize the safety of students and allow them to re-engage in physical activities in a way that they feel confident, ready, and prepared.
In this Blog, we are responding to some of the questions asked to the Ophea COVID-19 Safety Team in order to help clarify how current Ministry of Education direction applies to Health and Physical Education, Intramural Activities, and Interschool Athletic Activities.
Q1a: Do Ophea’s COVID-19 Considerations for curricular (Health and Physical Education), Intramural Activities and Interschool Athletic Activities provide all the information needed to implement safe physical activity programs?
A1a: No, Ophea’s COVID-19 Considerations for curricular (health and physical education), intramural activities and interschool athletic activities are not prescriptive in nature, rather, they are intended to support school boards and schools with:
- connecting the safety direction from the Ministry of Education COVID-19: Health, safety and operational guidance for schools (2021-2022) Version 3 (updated September 2, 2021) to the Health and Physical Education, Intramural, and Interschool Athletic Activity opportunities for students; and
- providing COVID-19 safety considerations and strategies to support school boards with the implementation of school-based physical activity programs.
It is important for teachers and administrators to also review their school board’s policies and requirements specific to COVID-19 safety as the school board may have established higher COVID-19 safety measures and/or timelines to allow for implementation. School boards and local public health units are in the best position to determine the COVID-19 safety considerations needed for the schools and students in their jurisdiction.
NOTE: School boards and schools should continue to refer to the Ontario Physical Activity Safety Standards in Education (OPASSE) for the minimum safety standards for risk management practice in the areas of Curricular (Health and Physical Education), Intramural Activities, Interschool Athletic Activities.
Q2a. What physical activities are permitted for students to participate in during curricular (Health and Physical Education), Intramural Activities, and Interschool Athletic Activities?
A2a. The Ministry of Education COVID-19: Health, safety and operational guidance for schools (2021-2022) Version 3 (updated September 2, 2021) has identified that all high-contact and low-contact activities are permitted indoors and outdoors. These activities are defined as:
- High-contact: includes activities/sports where there is physical contact and/or close proximity required between individuals.
- Low-contact: includes activities/sports that involve intermittent close proximity or limited, incidental physical contact between participants and allow for physical distancing most of the time.
Classification of activities/sports into these two categories should consider the:
- nature of the activity (e.g., tennis seldomly requires students to be in close proximity); and
- type of instructional strategies used (e.g., individual/small group basketball activities that maintain physical distancing can be classified as low-contact, while competitions that do not maintain physical distancing are high-contact activities).
When determining which activities/sports to include and the protective measures required consider the following areas:
- Type of Activity: Is the activity low-contact or high-contact?
- Location of the Activity: Will the activity be done indoors or outdoors?
- Cohorting: Will students participate within their cohort or between cohorts?
- Physical Distancing: Can the activity be done while maintaining physical distancing?
- Masking: Are masks required? Can they be worn safely?
Q2b. During what activities are students required to wear masks?
A2b: Masking is not required when students are participating in low and high contact activities/sports outdoors. “Masking is encouraged for indoor activities/sports where they can be worn safely based on the activity”.2
The following areas should be considered when determining when determining if a student can wear a mask safely based on the activity:
- the potential physical risks (e.g., the mask catching on equipment, becoming a choking hazard, impairing vision, causing difficulty breathing)
- the effectiveness of the mask (e.g., change masks if they become wet or saturated with sweat).
Q3a. Can students use equipment during curricular (Health and Physical Education), Intramural, Interschool Athletic Activities?
A3a. Yes, students can use both shared materials and high touch surfaces as part of the curricular (Health and Physical Education), intramural, and interschool athletic programs.
- Shared materials: are materials/equipment that are used between students (e.g., basketballs, hula hoops, cricket bats etc.). The risk associated with transmission with shared materials/equipment is low. When using shared materials/equipment the focus should be on regular hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette to reduce the risk of infection related to shared equipment, particularly when regular cleaning of shared objects is not feasible.
- High touch surfaces: are surfaces that are touched by numerous students throughout the day (e.g., benches, gymnastic mats, stationary fitness/weight room equipment). When using high touch surfaces:
- the focus should be on regular hand hygiene to reduce the risk of infection; and
- cleaning plus disinfecting twice daily is suggested at a minimum, however more frequent cleaning may be necessary depending on the frequency of use and extent of soilage.
Q4a. What facilities are students permitted to use to participate in physical activity?
A4a. Within the Curricular (Health and Physical Education), Intramural, and Interschool Athletics programs the use of gymnasiums, swimming pools, change rooms, and fitness/weight rooms are permitted.
When different cohorts interact in shared indoor spaces such as a change room, masking and as much distancing as possible should be maintained between cohorts. Some strategies may include: blocking off areas in change rooms, and posting signs to remind students to maintain distance.
Q4b. Why is ventilation important for the implementation of Curricular (Health and Physical Education), Intramural and Interschool Athletic programs?
A4b. Air quality for learning environments (such as gymnasiums, fitness/weight rooms, change rooms etc.) is a key protective factor in establishing a healthy and safe learning environment for students. School boards/schools should have a process in place to:
- check that the ventilation system for the school (including all physical activity learning environments) has been inspected and is functional; and
- in the learning environment that does not have a ventilation system, place stand-alone high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units.
If you are not aware of the status of your ventilation system, check with your principal.
Additional strategies to increase air quality and ventilation for students include, maximizing opportunities to learn in the outdoors, and where feasible and safe to do so, open windows.
If you have any additional questions regarding COVID-19 Considerations for Curricular (Health and Physical Education), Intramural Activities, and/or Interschool Athletic Activities, please submit them online at Ask Ophea.
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1 Ontario Ministry of Education. (2021). COVID-19: Health, safety and operational guidance for schools (2021-2022) Version 3 (updated September 2, 2021) (pg. 3). Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/document/covid-19-health-safety-and-operational-guidance-schools-2021-2022
2 Ontario Ministry of Education. (2021). COVID-19: Health, safety and operational guidance for schools (2021-2022) Version 3 (updated September 2, 2021) (pg. 20). Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/document/covid-19-health-safety-and-operational-guidance-schools-2021-2022