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Caution tape surrounds playground equipment at a park on The Esplanade in downtown Toronto, on March 26, 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Students in some Ontario school boards will not be able to play on monkey bars and slides during recess because of concerns about the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Boards, including the Toronto District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, are barring students from using playground structures when classes resume this month.

“It’s just not possible for caretakers to disinfect play structures between each cohort in addition to their already significant health and safety duties inside the school,” said Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the TDSB. “It’s unfortunate and we hope that our students and families understand that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe.”

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The Ottawa-Carleton board is closing playground structures as part of efforts to focus on “outdoor activities that support physical distancing,” said spokesman Darcy Knoll.

The board decided to forbid students from using play structures as education officials attempt to balance public-health advice with children’s physical activity needs as well as staffing resources for cleaning and supervision.

Some parents say banning children from swinging on monkey bars, zipping down slides and scrambling up rope walls is an overreaction, especially given that many scientists believe the risk of catching COVID-19 from touching contaminated surfaces is negligible.

Toronto parent Maggie O’Connor said children will need even more opportunities for physical activity this year because of limitations on their movement inside schools. She has written e-mails about the TDSB’s play structure ban to school trustees, Toronto Public Health and her city councillor.

“Especially if the school day is going to be even more restrictive and even more sort of stressful, I guess, this seems like something that needs to really be looked at,” said Ms. O’Connor, whose seven-year-old daughter is entering Grade 2.

Toronto Public Health has advised schools that outdoor play structures should be limited to one cohort of children at a time and that shared equipment should be disinfected between groups, Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health, said in a statement. Dr. Dubey said while COVID-19 is primarily spread by respiratory droplets rather than contaminated surfaces, disinfecting high-touch surfaces is still important.

The Ontario Ministry of Education’s guide to reopening schools calls for “routine cleaning” of surfaces on playgrounds, including high-touch plastic and metal areas, in addition to physical distancing.

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The City of Toronto opened playgrounds in late July, but is not sanitizing equipment. Parents are encouraged to clean children’s hands, stay two metres away from others and wear masks when physical distancing is not possible.

While the TDSB is not allowing students to use playground structures during the school day, the equipment will remain accessible to the general public outside of school hours, Mr. Bird said.

The board may decide to reopen play structures later in the school year with guidance from public-health experts, he said.

“We really want to try to get into a routine in the opening weeks and months so that once that’s established, we can start looking at different aspects and seeing how it can be fine-tuned,” he said.

School boards in other parts of Canada are allowing children to use playground structures with enhanced health and safety protocols.

The Calgary Board of Education, for example, said students can use equipment but will remain in class cohorts for recess and may be assigned to specific areas of schoolyards. The Vancouver School District said students will clean their hands before and after outdoor play.

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Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school. André says moving forward isn't about there being no COVID-19 cases, but limiting their number and severity through distancing, smaller classes, masks and good hygiene. The Globe and Mail

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