Groups scramble to find alternatives to school gyms

·4 min read

Gym time has become a hot commodity in pandemic New Brunswick after the Department of Education closed all of its gyms to community groups.

That means children's athletic associations, youth groups, and anyone who previously operated out of a school, are all scrambling to find alternative locations.

Those with facilities to offer have been inundated with inquiries.

Dave Theriault of the YMCA of Greater Moncton said he received a "flood of requests" when the province announced the decision to close school gymnasiums to outside groups.

"That's when the flood ... of requests came in," said Theriault, the Y's vice-president of programs and community initiatives.

"Because traditionally, I would never get that many requests from outside agencies … or private people just to use the facilities."

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Theriault said he's fielded inquiries from a wide variety of groups — from organized youth sports groups and clubs to individual enthusiasts just looking to play a pickup game of hoops with a bunch of friends.

According to the Education Department's Return to School policy, even parents aren't allowed into school gyms to watch their children play for school teams.

When asked about the decision last month, deputy education minister George Daley said it came down to cleaning.

"We were worried about having enough resources to keep schools clean if we allow spectators in. So we made the choice to not allow them in."

Daley said it was important to "protect the sanctity of the bubbles," by limiting the number of people entering school buildings.

Spokesperson Tara Chislett said Thursday that the Education Department will re-evaluate the decision, but community groups "should not expect any access to school facilities any earlier than January 2021."

Sally Pitt/CBC
Sally Pitt/CBC

She said the priority is keeping schools clean and safe for students.

"At this time, the capacity to maintain cleaning and disinfecting standards with existing resources is limited," she wrote in an email.

She said the department is "actively recruiting additional custodial staff."

Children missing out

The director of operations for Basketball New Brunswick is worried that a quarter of all children won't be able to play basketball this year.

"There's just a lot of kids that would normally be bouncing a ball that aren't doing it," said Tyler Slipp.

He said about 95 per cent of his members use school gyms, and all have had to scramble to find other places to operate.

"We've beaten the doors down on churches, community centres — basically anywhere we can find that's got two hoops, so that kids can be active," said Slipp.

With so many groups in the same position, it hasn't been easy.

Exacerbating the situation is that some facilities that have gyms and multipurpose rooms have also closed to outside groups.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC
Vanessa Blanch/CBC

The Boys and Girls Club of Moncton is one of them.

Executive director Moncef Lakouas said he would love to accommodate groups displaced by the Education Department's decision, but the club, too, has shut its doors to outside users.

Lakouas said the priority is to ensure the facility is safe for children to continue accessing in-house programming.

Jocelyn Cohoon, the director of Leisure Services for the City of Moncton, said her staff is working with various community groups to find alternatives.

Cohoon said some city facilities aren't being used as much because of COVID-19 restrictions and have been "repurposed."

The Coliseum, for example, isn't seeing the amount of traffic it usually does, so the city is setting up "temporary space" that can be used for community groups in the short term.

But other communities aren't so lucky.

Slipp said only about half the basketball associations in the province are able to operate "in some capacity."

Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

The recently merged associations in Fredericton, for example, have delayed the season until January.

In a Facebook message to parents, the organization said the move is necessary because of the lack of availability of gyms.

In a message sent to basketball parents in Moncton, interim president Tim Wallace said his organization has been working with recreation officials with the City of Moncton to find alternatives for the 650 children registered with the association.

"It's been a significant struggle to try to find gym time, particularly considering that there are other community groups who also want to use the gyms in the city," said Wallace.

They've been creative with some spaces, said Wallace, but the important thing is that everyone will play basketball this year.

As a doctor, Wallace said it was apparent to him that children needed to return to their normal activities for their own mental health.

He said it's been "eye-opening how much it was needed."

It's not just a basketball game, said Wallace.