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Extracurricular activities resume in Ontario schools after pandemic but access depends on where you live: survey

A empty hallway is seen at a school in this Sept. 5, 2014 file photo. (Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS) A empty hallway is seen at a school in this Sept. 5, 2014 file photo. (Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

While extracurricular activities are back up and running at Ontario schools following the pandemic, a new report found that access to these activities “varies substantially” depending on where a student lives.

The findings were published by People for Education after the education advocacy group assessed its Annual Ontario School Survey, which asked 1,044 principals across the province’s 72 publicly funded school boards about available extracurricular activities in their respective schools.

“Survey responses revealed that the availability of extracurricular activities and learning opportunities depends on the median family income of the school neighbourhood and whether the school is located in an urban or rural area,” the authors of the report wrote.

“Schools in high-income areas are more likely to offer all extracurricular clubs… and all other school activities compared to schools in low-income areas, with the exception of breakfast/nutrition programs.”

Eco clubs were found in 71 per cent of schools in high-income areas, compared to 43 per cent in low-income areas. Academic competitions were offered in 47 per cent of schools in high-income neighbourhoods, versus 16 per cent in low-income communities.

Social justice clubs could be found in 50 per cent of schools in high-income neighbourhoods compared to 31 per cent in low-income areas. Art clubs were found in about 80 per cent of schools in high-income communities versus just 66 per cent in schools in low-income neighbourhoods.

About 60 per cent of schools in high-income areas had technology, robotics, or STEM clubs, compared to just 48 per cent in low-income neighbourhoods. Sports and educational field trips were offered at about the same rates regardless of neighbourhood income, the report found.

Geography also played a big role in access to extracurriculars, according to the report.

“Schools located in urban areas were more likely to report that they offer all school clubs compared to schools located in rural areas,” the report authors said.

Part of the reason students in rural areas have less access is due to transportation, the report noted.

“Principals of rural schools reported lack of transportation as a barrier limiting their students’ access to extracurricular activities,” the report continued.

“The combination of rising fuel costs, irregular schedules, sparse benefits, and low pay has resulted in school bus driver shortages not only in rural areas, but in many regions across Ontario as well as the rest of Canada.”

Staffing shortages within schools has led to a drop in available extracurriculars, the report added.

“Organizing school activities and extracurriculars is voluntary for teachers and staff, and principals said that they noticed fewer staff had the time and energy to dedicate to the activities, in part because of ongoing staff shortages and increased student needs in the classroom,” the report read.

Fundraising activities are also down across the board following the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey found.

“Over the last decade, fundraising has come to play an essential role in covering the costs of things like arts enrichment, charitable causes, sports equipment, school nutrition programs, and field trips. Because the costs for these activities must come from school budgets, rather than any provincial funding, many schools now rely on fundraising to augment their budgets,” the report continued.

In 2022-2023, fundraising in schools was “notably lower” compared to the last school year before the pandemic, the survey revealed.

For elementary schools, 88 per cent reported fundraising in 2022-23, down from 99 per cent in 2019-20. At the secondary school level, only 70 per cent reported fundraising in 2022-23, dropping from 88 per cent in 2019- 20.

“Over the past 10 years, the average amount fundraised per school in both elementary and secondary schools was lowest in 2022-23. Elementary schools raised an average of $7,245 while secondary schools raised an average of $7,666, compared to $11,099 and $18,677 in 2012-13, respectively,” the report read.

“The average amount raised in high-income schools was almost three times higher than that raised in low-income schools in 2022-23 ($10,423 compared to $3,757 per school).”

The authors of the report go on to note that participation in extracurriculars has several benefits for students.

“A breadth of research indicates that extracurricular activities such as sports, arts, clubs, and community programs can positively affect students’ mental and emotional well-being, including decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression, improved self- concept and confidence, stronger feelings of connectedness and belonging, and higher levels of life satisfaction,” the report states.

In a recommendation to the province, People for Education urged the Ontario government to “convene a Health and Education Task Force,” which would include experts, practitioners, and students to provide input on government policy.

“People for Education recommends that the province develop policy and funding that recognizes the far-reaching benefits that extracurricular and school activities provide for students and ensures that all students have equitable access to these vital components of a quality education,” the group wrote in the report. Top Stories

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