Thousands of students training with parent-led running teams will not be able to participate in competitive meets this week in a last-minute decision made by staff at the Toronto District School Board and its elementary athletic association.
Parents across the city stepped in at the beginning of the school year to coach teams such as cross-country after teachers began cutting back on their volunteer time to protest against the Ontario government's decision to legislate the terms of their contracts.
Without a TDSB staff member they were unable to register for the meet, but until recently, it was believed that accommodations would be made so that those parent-led teams could compete. In a last-minute meeting Monday afternoon TDSB staff and members of the Toronto District Elementary Schools Athletic Association dashed those hopes, restricting the meets to registered students only.
"It's a mess," said trustee Sheila Cary-Meagher. "It's sad we got into spot where nobody is happy – not kids, not parents, not teachers."
It was TDESAA policy and concerns about overcrowding at the four cross-country meet sites that led to the decision.
"For safety reasons we can't allow these unregistered students to participate," said Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the school board.
He said that the four sites selected for races this week are already at capacity, and would be too crowded if the unregistered students participated in the races.
Last year, about 20,000 elementary students registered to compete in the season's first regional competitions. This year, just 11,000 students, or about 150 schools, were able to register because they had a teacher leading their team.
The TDSB is looking for a way to accommodate unregistered athletes, including scheduling more competitions for later this month.
"We're looking at alternatives so that they can have the experience of the run," said Mr. Bird.
Trustee Pamela Gough said principals in her Etobicoke ward were being "barraged" with e-mails and phone calls from parents disappointed with the decision.
Cross-country running is one of the most popular sports for Toronto students. It is considered highly inclusive and often draws students who are more reluctant to participate on other sports teams, said trustee Howard Goodman.
The starting line can be particularly hazardous, as students line up shoulder-to-shoulder, 50 deep and wait for the starting gun.
"I haven't seen a start where someone hasn't got knocked down," said Mr. Goodman, whose son used to compete in cross-country.
The difficulty in pinning down firm numbers for unregistered students compounded concerns about overcrowding.
Teachers began cutting back on volunteer activities – things like coaching, clubs and parent-teacher meetings – in early September, after the Ontario government passed legislation that forced a wage freeze, cuts to sick days and limited their powers to strike.
The province has said the legislation was designed to ensure a school year without disruptions, and to avoid teachers getting experience-based pay raises and cash pay outs on sick days that taxpayers could not afford.