The South West Athletic Conference (SWAC) has reached an important milestone in its history while it successfully continues to provide opportunities to students to participate in different sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SWAC Athletic Coordinator Valerie Gordon presented the athletics status report at a regular Chinook School Division board meeting, March 14, and also spoke to the Prairie Post the following day.
She noted this is an important milestone year for SWAC, because it was established during the 1951-52 school year. It is affiliated to the Saskatchewan High Schools Athletic Association (SHSAA) and she felt school sports provide an important opportunity to students.
“School sports offer an avenue for athletes to take part in one of the 10 activities high school athletic offers in an education-based setting,” she said. “The motto of the SHSAA is ‘Athletics in Education’. So there’s always that education piece and staff or teachers are always involved. I think the low cost is definitely a factor. I think the set seasons of play is a factor. Seasons last two to two-and-a-half months. So there is time to do multi sport that is sometimes a challenge when you get more into community or club sport. The association has been going for coming on 75 years. They got to be doing something right that we’re keeping kids involved in school sports.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a major challenge to the continuation of school sports, but she felt that SWAC and the Chinook School Division successfully navigated through the past two years.
“We are the only district in the province that were able to run some sport in-house and we’re one of the few that even this year has run every activity safely, which has been a great undertaking,” she said.
She noted it took a significant and concerted effort to create and implement measures to keep students healthy while sport activities were carried out.
“It was a big team effort with everybody, with the Chinook leadership team, our board, athletic directors, just to get our policy and to find a way to safely let kids play,” she said. “That was key with everything as we were going to do what was best and safest at all times.”
A key component of their successful strategy was the development and implementation of the Return to Sport protocol.
“Our Return to Sport document was actually used by other school divisions and districts in the province,” she said. “So it helped other districts to form theirs.”
This document made it possible for the Chinook School Division to resume sport activities in September 2021 in compliance with public health protocols that were then in place.
“It was huge,” she said about the protocol. “Without it, we would not have been allowed to do some of the activities. The local health authority was kept abreast of all of the recommendations and policies and procedures we put in place. The fact that we didn’t have one COVID transmission from school to school through sport speaks a lot to how solid that document was and how serious people took all of our protocols in place. That’s what allowed us to continue to do sport, as we were not seeing transmissions based on our school sport setting.”
The recent lifting of provincial public health restrictions means the various sport activities are now continuing without the requirements that were previously in place under the protocol.
“I would say for the most part we’re 90 to 95 per cent back to where we were pre-pandemic,” Gordon noted. “We fully recommend masking, physical distancing when possible, we encourage those to vaccinate if they feel that’s right for them, but we of course don’t mandate any of that. We do still see kids masking as they go onto courts or between games, and we definitely support that at any point in time, and the idea that if you have any symptoms, then you’re not taking part. So that piece is still in place.”
The pandemic had an impact on participation numbers and SWAC will look at ways to encourage students to return to school sport.
“I’m confident that as we work through next year and the next few years, those numbers will come back,” she said. “Time will tell. I’m not naive enough to think that COVID is gone, but as we work through and we check our participants and illness rates, we’ll slowly start to bring everybody back into sport as safely as possible.
Lack of officials is an ongoing issue, specifically in soccer, football and basketball. SWAC offers free clinics in basketball and volleyball. She praised the efforts of athletic directors in the schools, who do their work on a voluntary basis, to deal with the challenges of the past few years.
“Schools have worked hard to get the coaches when they need them,” she said. “Some coaches have stepped back for a year or two and some officials, but our athletic directors have stuck through it and with as much as they have on their plate with COVID in their schools and teaching, which is their first job. They’ve done an awesome job of keeping our programs going in all our schools.”