After a month without extracurriculars at Windsor-Essex schools, public health is recommending to school boards that they set a policy allowing fully vaccinated students to participate in activities.
News of the decision came Thursday as some students staged a protest over the controversial ban on sports, clubs and field trips.
Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, acting medical officer of health, said that a consensus with school board officials was reached during a meeting on Wednesday.
Since the school boards will have to set up a vaccination policy, there is no timeline for when the activities will resume, and it could vary by school board, said Windsor-Essex County Health Unit CEO Nicole Dupuis.
"They'll have to do some work to obviously put in place a procedure or process to ensure those who are participating are fully vaccinated," she said.
Alicia Higgison, the chairperson of the Greater Essex County District School Board, is welcoming the announcement. She said that the policy will be a good incentive to encourage people to get vaccinated.
"I was grateful this morning that we have a path forward to be able to reintroduce extracurriculars in a safe way," she said.
Thursday afternoon, a joint statement was issued on behalf of the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, the Greater Essex County District School Board, Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, Conseil scolaire Viamonde and the Windsor Essex County Secondary Schools Athletic Association (WECSAA).
"We believe that extracurriculars are very important for the physical and mental health of our students, however, we also believe they can only proceed in a way that will reduce the risk of further spread of COVID-19 amongst our students and staff; vaccination is the best way to reduce that likelihood," the statement said.
"Once school boards have formalized their procedures, they will work together with the Windsor and Essex County Secondary Schools Athletic Association (WECSSAA) on determining which sports may be able to proceed based on the amount of time in the season, on the number of students who would be eligible to participate, and the number of coaches who will be available."
The statement said the timing of the return of extracurriculars will depend on the factors listed above.
Each school board will develop its own proof of vaccination policy.
"To further support a safe return to extracurricular activities, WECSSAA and its member boards have decided to play regionally among schools in Windsor and Essex County with the primary focus on re-engaging our students in athletics," the statement said.
"High schools will not participate in SWOSSAA and OFSAA competition, but will follow return to play protocols of each organization, including those of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association."
'We need sports'
Students at several high schools staged a walk-out on Thursday morning.
At F.W. Herman Academy, they carried signs pleading for the return of athletics and marched in the street toward Honourable W. C. Kennedy Collegiate.
Some drivers honked their horns in support.
"Sports is what keeps me going in school, so I want them back," said Grade 11 student Janae Finnister, who plays soccer and other sports.
She thinks its unfair that activities are still going ahead in other areas.
"We can take precautions to make sports available," she said, referencing masking and vaccination.
Reacting to the news that fully vaccinated students will eventually be able to play, Kiano Elliott said he wants to see it happen "as soon as possible" saying that football teams are losing warm weather days.
"Two years without sports — we need sports," he said.
Organizer Dean Facca, who is also a football player, said students are "sick of" not being able to play and thinks the health unit should allow it.
"They should realize that school sports is the only outlet for a lot of kids, OK? A lot of kids can't afford club sports.
More than 200 cohorts dismissed
Just before the start of the year, the public health unit recommended that all schools cancel activities until at least October. The recommendation came as COVID-19 rates soared in the region, with more than 500 active cases.
Cases and outbreaks within schools started to crop up shortly after the school began. And so far, more than 200 class cohorts have been dismissed and three schools have been shut down due to outbreaks. There are currently five active outbreaks.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 vaccination rate is lagging among youth. Across the province, 73.5 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, compared with 63.8 per cent in Windsor-Essex.
Those under 12 are currently not eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines, though Pfizer has submitted preliminary data to Health Canada on vaccination of five-to-11-year-olds as part of the approval process.