Despite pandemic, St. Mark students participate in virtual Relay for Life

By Charlie Senack

While many events can’t take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ottawa Catholic Schools Boards virtual academy has found a way to keep some traditions alive.

On Thursday, April 1, over 1,000 students participated in Relay for Life, an event which is typically held in-person over a 10-12 hour period. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event had to be held virtual, a first for the school board.

Kirsten Larkin is a grade 11 student at St. Mark High School in Manotick, but currently attends the virtual academy. Now serving as an active member on the virtual schools student council, she says they wanted to find a way to bring everyone together while supporting an important cause.

Schools all around Ottawa participate in annual Relay For Life Celebrations every year and raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Canadian Cancer Society. The money goes a long way towards cancer research and to those who have battled or are currently battling the disease.

Over a 10-12 hour period, students will participate in a variety of games, learn about how cancer impacts us all, and always has at least one member from each team walking around a track at all times for 12 hours. Some schools like to hold the event overnight with students not allowed to fall asleep. At the end of each event, a luminary ceremony is held to pay tribute to all of those who have lost their lives to cancer.

Larkin says due to restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this isn’t your traditional Relay For Life ceremony; but thanks to technology, the tradition still carried on.

“I’ve never actually been to Relay For Life before so I don’t really know what it’s like to attend the event in-person, but I’m excited because we have been able to put together some games and prizes which we are giving out,” said Larkin. “It’s been fun planning from the beginning with the whole committee. They are all great and I love them all. It was a lot of work planning it for a couple of months (but) we had lots of guidance from Relay For Life and from other people who have held virtual events.”

Kristen Larkin is one of many students who has helped the Relay For Life tradition carry on through the pandemic.

Because it was held online, the event only took place for two hours instead of the typical 12. The luminary ceremony still took place as did the survivors speeches and lap. While the games may have also looked different, students were able to participate in trivia games, a scavenger hunt, and mystery cases among others.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 115,800 Canadian men were diagnosed with cancer in 2020; 44,100 sadly perished from the disease. For women 110,000 were expected to be diagnosed that same year, with 39,300 passing away.  On average, 228 Canadians would die from cancer every day.

“I know cancer has connected with everyone in some way; everyone knows of someone who has passed away or has suffered from cancer,” said Larkin. “I have a couple in my family who has passed away and some family friends that are currently suffering from cancer so it’s a big part of my life and I know so many other people deal with the same thing.”

Andrew Kwai, a mathematics and science teacher at St. Francis Xavier High School, who is currently teaching with the virtual academy, said he felt it was important Relay For Life events were still able to take place during the pandemic. He has helped organize a number of in-person events prior to the pandemic and approached the student council with the idea.

“This is a really important event; there’s a lot of really important work for cancer research, for cancer survivors, and people going through treatment,” he said. “If you miss a year you really don’t know what the impact of that might be.”

“We thought it was really important that we show members of our school board, the school community, and people in Ottawa that this event can go on virtually,” he added. “The virtual academy is something that is here to stay at least in the short term, so it helps to build some of the community.”

Larkin says one of the biggest difficulties with online learning is having a relationship with her classmates. Larkin says despite seeing them virtually every day, she hasn’t been able to meet any of the students or teachers she attends school with.

The Ottawa Catholic School Boards virtual academy is made up of over 6,000 students. About 1,000 of them participated in the two-hour relay event — a bigger crowd than what is normally seen at in-person events.

Larkin is hoping that by holding events like this, it will help break down some of the walls virtual schooling has built and will mean the students can connect and get to know one another.

“Virtual academy has been hard for a lot of people because when we are in class, we are not interacting with other students,” she said. “I joined the student council to find ways to interact more. This event has really helped to get the students together and I have met some amazing people who I have actually never met in real life.”

Because Larkin will be heading into grade 12 next year and it will be her last year of high school, the Greely teen says she will attend St. Mark’s in-person again come September, something she says many graduating students plan to do.

The Ottawa Catholic School Boards virtual academy has set a goal of raising $50,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society. Just a day before the event, they were about $10,000 short.

Kwai says one of the benefits of holding Relay For Life online is it’s even easier to donate. Their initial goal was to raise $10,000 but they raised over $8,000 in the first 24 hours.

Anyone who wishes to donate can still do so throughout the month of April. Just head to the Relay For Life website, look for the Ottawa Catholic School Boards page, and make your donation there. You can even select the name of a student within the board to help support their team.