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Kaitlyn Sloan, left, ties her shoes with teammate Avery Marshall prior to a 5km cross-country race put on by the Superior Secondary Schools Athletic Association, in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Oct. 20, 2020.

Photography by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

A global pandemic will almost certainly deprive Abbie Houlding of both her prom and her high school graduation ceremony, but it could not stop her from being outside on a brisk Tuesday evening in Thunder Bay, participating in a school activity unheard of during these times.

She got to compete in a cross-country race.

School clubs, choirs and sports were put on hiatus in much of the country to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, prompting concerns about the mental health and well-being of teenagers whose high-school experience has been drastically altered. A small movement is afoot to bring some extracurricular activities back, with guidance from public health units.

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“In a time like this, it’s really nice to have something to do and something to work for, to feel that sense of camaraderie and to see people,” Ms. Houlding, 17, said on Tuesday evening after her run.

Abbie Houlding takes off from the start line.

DAVID JACKSON

The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, along with the local public board, organized an event in which about 150 students participated from all the local high schools, running five kilometres instead of three different distances. Groups of 15 runners arrived in waves all day on Tuesday. After they completed the race, they left, and results were posted online later.

In preparation, some of the high schools ran physically distanced training sessions (Ms. Houlding trained four times on her school track). Dave Pineau, activities director for both boards, also sent workouts home. He said that only a few times in his career has he been so excited to get an event off the ground. It’s easier to have extracurriculars when case counts are low, he said. On Wednesday, Thunder Bay had no active cases.

Mr. Pineau said school sports gave him confidence as a teenager, and “hopefully, we can look for solutions to do it rather than throw up our hands and say we can’t do it.

“In a year where so much was taken from students, at least we can find something that we can offer as hope.”

Racers Alissa Sillen, front left, and Nur Hasan, front right, are followed down a snowy trail by Cedric Martel and Jasmine Klassen during a race.

DAVID JACKSON

Tony Baldwin, education director of the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, Sask., said his schools are slowly phasing in extracurriculars. Chess club is back, he said, although virtually for now. In time, his board hopes to run sports, first with class cohorts and then perhaps mixing cohorts, as long as case counts remain low and local public health officials give the green light.

He said that in years past, his primary focus was student learning. Although that is still the case, health and safety, and engaging students in school are also top of mind this year, he said.

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“We know that kids get a lot out of those opportunities, and some of them have had a tough road here for the last four and five months,” Mr. Baldwin said. “Kids are appreciative for what we’re doing and they’re hopeful for a day we can do even more. I am, too. And we’ll get there.”

Joanna Henderson, director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health, worries young people face significant mental health challenges during the pandemic. High school is more than academics for many teenagers, and she is concerned about what the loss of extracurriulars could mean.

“Young people would have told us these things," Dr. Henderson said. "They would have said school is not just about learning math. We all knew that, but they can help to bring it to the forefront so that when we’re thinking about our response and how to cope in the context of the pandemic, we can also be thinking about all of these other needs.”

Earlier this month, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said students could participate in volleyball and music as it began to bring back indoor extracurricular activities. Robert Colbourne, the choral director and music teacher at Holy Heart High School in St. John’s, described the rules as strict. However, he said, “I would do anything to be able to sing and to be able to have these students sing. If they told me I had to stand on my head … I would do that. It’s our passion.”

At practices for each of his four choirs (two more will start in the coming weeks), students wear masks in the room and stand two metres apart. They do activities such as humming and clapping rhythms for the first 30 minutes, and sing for the last half hour. Then they promptly leave the room to allow air to circulate. On Tuesday, the chamber choir put on their coats and stepped outside for a practice without masks.

“I start off every rehearsal saying, ‘I know this is weird, everything is new, but this is too important not to be able to experience singing,’” Mr. Colbourne said, adding: “We’ve adapted.”

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School staff were the only crowd to be heard cheering when students crossed the finish line.

DAVID JACKSON

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