HALIFAX: The provincial government confirmed that public school gyms will gradually reopen to community groups for physical activity and sports.

Knowing the role schools have in communities, education minister Zack Churchill said provincial officials have been working to re-open them safely for public access.

“Physical activity and sport are vital to our well-being, particularly during this difficult time,” he said. “As the weather turns cold, it’s important for community members to have safe spaces to bring these activities indoors.”

According to an announcement made last week, community access will be restricted to gyms and washrooms. Nova Scotia is allotting $5.5 million of federal funding from the Safe Return to Class Fund so regional centres for education and Conseil scolaire acadien provincial can hire additional staff and ensure that access is contained to the appropriate area of the school.

The additional cleaning also ensures students will come back to schools that have been cleaned in accordance with public health COVID-19 protocols following a community sporting activity.

Following Nova Scotia’s back to school plan, only essential adults will be permitted in schools during community use. This includes players/participants, officials, coaches, instructors or anyone else who is required to be on or near the field of play.

“Sport Nova Scotia is pleased to see that school gyms will once again be opened up for community use,” said Jamie Ferguson, chief executive officer, Sport Nova Scotia. ‘Countless sport organizations rely on these facilities in order to provide sport programs for thousands of people across the province. We appreciate the work that has been done by all parties to ensure our children will once again be able to safely participate in sport and reap the physical, mental and social benefits sport can provide.”

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

Regional centres for education and Conseil scolaire acadien provincial have posted a list of school gyms now open for bookings on their websites. These lists will be updated as more schools become available.

“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,” said Jason Trepanier, executive director, Volleyball Nova Scotia. “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.”

“Basketball Nova Scotia is thrilled with the announcement to allow community access to our schools,” said Katherine Brien, executive director, Basketball Nova Scotia. “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.”

“We can’t overstate the importance of school gymnasium access to the sport of soccer throughout many communities in Nova Scotia,” noted Brad Lawlor, executive director, Soccer Nova Scotia. “Community access to school gyms will allow many children the opportunity to participate in the game they love, while benefiting from the physical, mental and social aspects of our game. Thank you to everyone that played a role in making this happen.”

Tim Halman, Progressive Conservative Critic for Education and Early Childhood Education, said he is pleased the government finally listened to the students, coaches, community groups, and opposition MLAs who have been calling for the reopening of school gyms in the evenings.

“The only way this Liberal government takes action is when facing pressure from communities across Nova Scotia,” Halman said. “Our children and community members can now enjoy evening activities as a result of your actions.”

Noting the importance of recreation to mental health, Halman said this situation is the result of poor planning by the governing Liberals.

“There are still no details on the timeline for all schools and communities and I question why this was not included in Minister Churchill’s back to school plan from the beginning.”