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A Toronto District School Board logo is seen on a sign in front of a high school in Toronto, on, Jan. 30, 2018.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Extracurriculars have mostly returned to prepandemic levels in many Ontario schools, but principals struggle to provide the same level of activities in lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods and in remote areas of the province, according to a new survey.

In a report released Tuesday, the People for Education advocacy group found 80 per cent of schools in high-income areas offered their students bands, school plays and other arts clubs in the past academic year, compared with 66 per cent of schools in lower-income neighbourhoods.

Similarly, 60 per cent of schools in wealthy neighbourhoods offered robotics or technology clubs, compared with less than 50 per cent of schools in poorer areas. About 65 per cent of schools in urban areas said they offered eco clubs, which focus on learning about the environment, compared with 45 per cent of schools in rural areas.

The report calls for the province to provide students with equitable access to what it considers “vital components” of an education.

“I think we’re recognizing and we should be recognizing … how important this is to a quality education,” said Annie Kidder, PFE’s executive director. “There’s nothing in provincial funding for that part of learning, and to recognize that it’s a broader part of learning.”

The report is part of an annual PFE survey of principals and is based on responses from more than 1,000 schools across all 72 publicly funded boards in Ontario.

Too many school teachers are feeling overwhelmed and undervalued

Research shows that participating in extracurricular activities, whether it is through sports or clubs, is associated with improved mental well-being and confidence, as well as academic success among students. However, the report highlights the difficulty principals have in offering them to students.

Part of the challenge is that teachers and school staff who volunteer to organize and run extracurriculars are overworked because of continuing staff shortages and increased student needs in the classroom, the report says.

Furthermore, school fundraising – which can be used to help cover the cost of sports equipment, field trips and arts enrichment – has decreased. The cost for many activities comes from school budgets, rather than a pot of dedicated provincial funding, which means schools are relying more on fundraising to augment their budgets, the report says.

It found that the average amount fundraised per school in the past academic year was the lowest in more than a decade: Elementary schools raised an average of $7,245, while high schools raised an average of $7,666, compared with $11,099 and $18,677, respectively, in 2012-13.

However, the average amount raised in high-income schools was almost three times higher than that raised in low-income schools in the past school year.

“We have a small school with a lower socio-economic make-up. We know many of our families struggled to make ends meet during COVID – many lost their income. We tried not to pressure parents for fundraising this year,” one Toronto-area elementary-school principal states in the report.

Grace Lee, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an e-mail statement Monday that the government understands extracurricular activities, sports and field trips are “an essential part of a quality education that builds real life and job skills.”

Ms. Lee did not directly respond to the report’s call on the province to develop policy and funding for extracurricular and school activities.

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