What’s the Deal with School Gym Rentals?

During this month’s meeting of the CBRM council,  49 minutes’ worth of discussion was devoted to a motion by District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch that staff be directed to draft an Issue Paper on commissioning a study into the possibility of building a facility, somewhere in the CBRM, with two courts for sports such as basketball and volleyball as well as for unspecified “senior activities.”

By the time the motion had passed, by a vote of 11 to 1, it had been amended to state that the “preferred” location for said facility would be next to Centre 200, a site that has apparently been discussed as a potential site for such a facility for “years.”

During discussion on the motion, Paruch said:

We all know that these court sports rely heavily on the school gymnasiums and when this pandemic hit us, it was evidently and abundantly clear that we rely heavily on these schools for these particular programs.

Councilors were told that sports leagues have no access to school gyms, period, right now, due to COVID restrictions, and that discussions between unnamed parties and CBU over the use of the Canada Games Complex (which the CBRM had paid to operate in recent years) had fizzled, also due to COVID.

CBRM District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch

CBRM District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch

District 8 Councilor James Edwards asked if, post-COVID, a deal could be struck with CBU and was told by Paruch “possibly,” but “we’re trying to do something now, so when stuff does get back to normal, the proverbial ball is already rolling.”

Meaning, even when we once again have access to school gymnasiums and possibly the Canada Games Complex, we still want a new, two-court facility.

I find myself questioning the underlying assumption that, in the event of a third wave of COVID-19 or a first wave of some new pandemic, a municipally-owned sports facility would continue to operate when school facilities closed. Surely the epidemiology, rather than the facility ownership structure, would be the deciding factor? Look at HRM, where the Zatzman Sportsplex in Dartmouth is serving as a COVID testing facility because sports activities are not currently permitted.

But what I really wondered was why CBRM community sports leagues don’t currently have access to school facilities.

 

November 3

I know access was suspended during the first wave of COVID, but on November 3, Dr. Robert Strang and Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Zach Churchill announced that “public school gyms will gradually reopen to community groups for physical activity and sports.”

Community access was to be restricted to “gyms and washrooms,” and Nova Scotia directed $5.5 million of federal funding from the Safe Return to Class Fund so regional centres for education and Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP) could “hire additional staff and ensure that access is contained to the appropriate area of the school.”

Moreover:

To ensure equitable access to facilities, rental fees are being waived for this school year.

Organizers of all the court sports rejoiced. Here’s the executive director of Volleyball Nova Scotia, Jason Trepanier:

The vast majority of volleyball clubs in Nova Scotia use school gyms to offer their programming and I can tell you they are incredibly excited about getting back into schools. We’re especially happy for our youth, as we all know sport helps children grow into amazing leaders and outstanding members of the community. Thank you to everyone who helped make this possible.

And here’s the director of Basketball Nova Scotia, Katherine Brien:

Basketball Nova Scotia is thrilled with the announcement to allow community access to our schools. The benefits of sport are crucial parts of our physical, mental and social well-being, key factors in helping us all cope with COVID-19. The majority of our groups use our schools across the province to facilitate programming and this will allow our clubs and leagues to get back on court safely.

I followed up with Trepanier and Brien and heard back from Brien who told me that since that November 3 announcement:

…many of our clubs have had access to school gyms. Each Centre for Education has been operating at a different pace, while they use the allowed federal funding allotted in the announcement to hire the additional cleaning staff required.

I also wrote to all six regional centres for education plus CSAP to ask about their policies on school facilities rentals and here are the responses I received:

 

Cape Breton Victoria Regional Centre for Education (CBVRCE)

Susan Kelly, coordinator of communications for the CBVRCE, told me that while there are “some restrictions on use of school facilities due to the cleaning protocols”:

Gyms are available after school hours and on weekends, first to school teams and then where there is room in the schedule to community groups for physical activity. I would think that sports leagues would be asking for the gyms to play sports so that would meet our requirements.

When I checked the CBVREC website, I found this list of school gyms available for rental as of November 3:

  • Baddeck Academy
  • Breton Education Centre
  • Cabot Education Centre
  • Glace Bay High School
  • Memorial Composite High School
  • Riverview Rural High School
  • Sydney Academy 

I asked Kelly if this was the extent of the available school gyms and she emailed me that all CBVREC’s gyms are now available for rental (there are 38 schools in the CBVREC system) and promised to update the list, which they did, the website now states:

All schools in consultation with Property Services are now taking bookings.

I also exchanged emails with Lewis MacDonald, operations manager for CBVRCE, who told me they’ve hired additional cleaning staff, that rentals of school gyms continue and that groups must have their own liability insurance (a subject raised by not really addressed during the CBRM council meeting) to use the school gyms. MacDonald also noted that, like other regional education centres, CBVREC has waived rental fees for 2020-21.

Kelly sent me a copy of the CBVREC’s policy on facility rentals. (It covers rentals of classrooms and home economics departments, but these are not being rented right now, as per Churchill’s announcement, rentals are restricted to gyms for sports and physical activities — i.e. precisely the subject of council’s discussion.)

Application and Permit for Use of School Facilities Package

I emailed Paruch to ask how this jibed with what he told council about the lack of access to school gyms, he told me in an email:

As far as I was told the schools have top priority… nothing is available on weekends so it’s pretty difficult to make room when the[y’re] not open like a rec facility would be also adding to that the schools are closed Friday until early January.

Schools do have top priority — but presumably this was the case pre-COVID, and somehow, the “majority” of provincial basketball and volleyball clubs were able to access them regularly.

As for the extended Christmas school break this year, it strikes me as an argument for cutting a deal with the Department of Education to continue to utilize school gyms over the holidays rather than argument for building a new sportsplex in Sydney. At the very least, I think it’s an argument that could benefit from a little more research — like, talking to the Cape Breton Victoria Regional Centre for Education.

 

Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education (AVRCE)

Kristen Loyst, communications and FOIPOP officer for AVRCE, told me in an email:

Currently, AVRCE schools will accommodate community use for sports/physical activity only, as much they are able to do so around scheduled school use.

The AVRCE seems to be offering all its schools (of which there are 40, plus two adult high schools) for booking. The website directs people wishing to book gyms to the contacts for the individual schools, found on the website.

 

Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education (CCRCE)

Jennifer L. Rodgers, coordinator of communications for the CCRCE, directed to me to their website, which outlined their approach to community use of school gymnasiums.

Basically, they began reopening as of November 3, with an initial list of 19 schools, chosen because “they had the custodial staff available to support the additional disinfecting required to reopen those spaces.”

As of November 23, an additional 14 schools were added to that list, so 33 of the 67 schools making up the CCRCE.

The CRCE specifies that “first priority is given to school-based sporting events” and that “gym bookings differ from school-to-school and will depend on scheduling and the availability of custodial staff.”

Gymnasiums may be booked up to 9:30 pm on weekdays and on weekends “if [emphasis theirs] custodial staff are available to be on site and ensure the facility is ready for students the following instructional day.”

 

CSAP

Cathy Simon, coordinator of communications for CSAP, which oversees French-language schools across the province, told me some of their school gymnasiums could be rented out for physical and sports activities. For now, that list includes just seven of 21 schools, none of them in Cape Breton:

  • École acadienne de Truro
  • École NDA
  • École Joseph-Dugas
  • École Pubnico-Ouest
  • Centre scolaire de la Rive-Sud
  • École Stella-Maris
  • École Wedgeport

 

South Shore Regional and Tri-County Regional Centres for Education (SSRCE and TCRCE)

Ashley Grant, coordinator of communications for these two southern NS regional education centres, told me:

Both SSRCE and TCRCE have a number of schools with gyms open for community use for physical activity and sports, this includes availability for evenings and weekends. Keeping in mind, gym use is based on the availability of cleaning staff and school-based sports always have first priority to use the facility.

The South Shore Regional Centre for Education lists 20 of its 24 schools as taking bookings while the Tri-County Regional Centre lists 10 of its 22 schools.

 

Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE)

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education, which oversees 135 school, began accepting bookings for a handful schools on November 3, with bookings for other schools expected to begin the week of November 16.

Of course, much of this came to a halt on November 24, when COVID restrictions were tightened in western and central HRM. While schools and “after-school programs” remained open, “organized sports, recreational, athletic, arts and cultural activities” were “paused.”

 

Strait Regional Center for Education (SRCE)

Deanna Gillis, coordinator of communications for the SRCE, told me that community groups have been able to submit applications to “book school gyms for physical activity in the evenings, Monday to Friday” since November 16.

The SRCE is offering 16 of its 20 schools for booking.