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B.C. lifts ban on school sports tournaments

Pemberton sports teams were forced to play far fewer games, travel longer than their Lower Mainland counterparts
Tournament Play Pemberton Secondary Basketball 29.05 SUBMITTED
The Pemberton Secondary School’s senior boys basketball team has been forced to travel long distances out of the region for single games this season—and still sees far fewer games on the schedule than its Lower Mainland counterparts.

[Editor's Note: Although the provincial government has yet to announce it officially, late Thursday, Feb. 4, BC School Sports tweeted that the ban on school sports tournaments has been reversed following "constant dialogue" with the Ministry of Education and stakeholders. The following day, the province updated its online information on COVID-19 protocols in schools, stating "all sports, clubs and extracurricular activities are allowed." Pique's original story follows as it appeared in print on Feb. 4.]

Student athletes and parents from across the province are calling on B.C.’s Ministry of Education to reconsider its 11th-hour decision to uphold a ban on sports tournaments in light of COVID-19.

“This is creating an uneven playing field for students, not to mention taking away opportunity for scouting, college play, mental and physical health and long-term sport participation,” said clinical counsellor Tanya Richman, whose son, Oliver, plays on Pemberton Secondary School’s (PSS) senior basketball team.

The ministry was expected to announce the resumption of tournament play on Feb. 1, but ultimately decided to uphold an addendum to the K-12 guidelines that prohibits any single- or multi-day event with more than two teams participating. Single games are still permitted. The ministry said it would review the policy on a weekly basis moving forward.

“We are stunned by this decision, as there was commitment made this year to ensuring club and community sport access remained equal to school sport,” said Jordan Abney, executive director of BC School Sports, which represents public and non-public secondary school members from across the province.

“To have this decision made at such a critical time of year is disheartening for everyone involved in school sport, and continues to threaten and erode at the long-term health and sustainability of school sport.”

For rural schools such as PSS, the news is especially difficult to swallow in an academic year when opportunities to play in meaningful games have been few and far between. A Single A school, PSS does not belong to an official league, and as such, relies on tournaments to play the required number of games to be eligible for playoff contention. But with tournaments banned, PSS teams now have to travel out of the region several times a week—often in six-hour round trips—just to play a single game.

“Not being able to have fans and all our tournaments getting cancelled has been really difficult, and we’ve had to do a lot just for single games, so it has been very difficult,” said PSS basketball player Oliver Richman.

The PSS senior teams’ schedules have effectively been gutted, with Oliver estimating his team has played about half of the games other Single A schools like those in the Lower Mainland have, given their proximity to each other.

With limited playing time and no fans in the stands, players like Oliver looking to take their game to the collegiate level are also missing out on crucial scouting opportunities.

“I’m definitely trying to play at the next level, at college,” he said. “Not having crowds makes it so scouts aren’t allowed to come to the games. I can’t film my games to send to coaches, so that part has been very difficult.”

Then there’s the inherent social and emotional value of sport, especially important in the pandemic after student athletes across all sports were limited to only practices in the 2020-’21 academic year.   

“[W]e live in an area … where so many of our students are active and engaged, and it’s one of the things that research shows attaches kids to schools and gives meaning,” said clinical counsellor Tanya, who added that she was hopeful the education ministry would consider some form of exemption for rural schools like PSS.

“I would have liked to have seen perhaps an exemption for rural schools, where they can go somewhere and play two different teams in a day, with no spectators. The other team doesn’t have to stay and watch, but some accommodation for when we’re putting kids on the road for a six-hour round trip, that we’re not doing so at the expense of their education and time,” she said.

A petition calling for the province to lift the ban on high school tournament play had hit more than 12,000 signatures at press time.

In a canned statement, the education ministry said it recognizes sport’s importance to students and school communities, and continues to work closely with public health and BC School Sports “to ensure we can keep students and staff safe and healthy as we continue to navigate through the Omicron wave of the pandemic.” The statement did not address questions about rural schools.

The ministry is meeting this week with B.C.’s K-12 steering committee to review the current guidelines around school sports tournaments, the statement added.