School Sports Put Students At COVID Risk

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This story was reported by the staff of The Princeton Summer Journal and written by Kayla Bey, Jariel Christopher, Melanie Paredes, and Daniel Sanchez.

Summer F., 17, is a high school senior in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she plays varsity volleyball. In March, Louisiana was stricken with one of the earliest and worst U.S. outbreaks of COVID-19, forcing the shutdown of classroom learning and youth sports. But months passed, cases subsided, and by early June the state had okayed the resumption of practices for fall sports. When Summer returned to volleyball practice, however, she felt her school, Port Allen High, might be courting disaster. “Most [athletes] decided to wear masks, but it didn’t last long,” she said. “It’s sometimes hot in the gym and with workouts it’s hard to breathe.”

Several regulations were in place, including prepractice temperature checks and a prohibition on locker room access. But the school, Summer suggested, was partly relying on students to police themselves, asking them to report any virus symptoms or contact with infected individuals. In July and August, cases again began to rise in Louisiana, which now has the highest per-capita infection rate in the country. Volleyball practice continued three times a week, as scheduled.

Port Allen High is following the re-opening guidelines set in June by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA). But the regulations may not be addressing major drivers of the virus. Cloth face masks are encouraged for coaches, but are not recommended for athletes engaging in “high-intensity aerobic activity.” Perhaps more troublingly, the LHSAA has has not prohibited teams from congregating in enclosed indoor facilities, from “meeting rooms” to gymnasiums. COVID-19 is thought to
spread primarily through airborne particles in poorly ventilated spaces.

According to Port Allen principal James Jackson, “two to three” student athletes have
recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But he defends the school’s protocols. “We never had an outbreak on any team,” he told The Princeton Summer Journal. This, he said, suggests the infections were “due to some type of gathering that they may have had outside of school.”

The situation at Port Allen High School is a microcosm of America’s unruly and improvised approach to safely resuming high school athletics.

In July, the Summer Journal conducted a survey of 33 school districts’ sports reopening plans, polling schools from California to Rhode Island. The results varied wildly.
Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland canceled summer practices and fall sports, as did the state of New Mexico. But in Chicago, Illinois, Orange City, Florida, and Tahlequah, Oklahoma, summer practices or conditioning drills continued. Some districts, such as Boston, Massachusetts, called off summer programming but pledged to resume competition in September. School districts were almost evenly split between those that held and cancelled summer practices—though districts in the Northeast,
where the virus hit early, tended to have more restrictions than elsewhere.

The survey may be most telling for what districts didn’t know. Many indicated that coaches would be wearing face coverings, but most were non-committal about how
athletes were meant to wear masks or socially-distance in team settings. The school district encompassing Orlando, Florida provided a detailed presentation about its summer practice protocol. Several weeks later, amid sharply rising coro-
navirus cases, the district postponed all practices until the end of August. Few districts stated with any clarity how fall competitions would be conducted safely, if at all. If anything, the survey reflected the Frankenstein monster that is America’s patchwork response to the pandemic.

While the COVID-19 fatality rate remains extremely low for minors, the resumption of classroom instruction and organized sports could spread the virus to coaches, teachers, and family members. Unlike professional sports teams, which have rigorous testing protocols, most high schools have virtually no way of detecting asymptomatic transmission between students.

For now, Summer is deciding to play volleyball, despite her anxieties. “I feel as if they do not care about our safety, even though there are some precautions put in place,” she said, citing her district’s decision to re-open.

“Most students who play sports are choosing to go to school in August because sports is all they have. For some, it’s their senior year. Who doesn’t want to play sports their senior year?”

On the night of July 16, the Gwinnett County Board of Education convened outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Though the county had the second-most COVID-19 infections in the state, the school district would resume in-person learning the following month. Just one board member, Everton Blair Jr., voiced his disapproval. After he spoke and as cameras continued to roll, Chairwoman Louise Radloff muttered, “I could strangle him.”

Radloff, who is white, later called her comment “out of order,” and apologized to Blair, who is Black. The subject of re-opening high school sports in Georgia, where football is close to a religion, has been no less charged.

Early in the summer, the Georgia High School Association released a strict re-opening protocol. Locker rooms were off-limits and group sizes were limited. But on July 22, with football season looming, the GHSA relaxed the rules. Locker rooms were opened and
athletes could huddle in unlimited number. Asked about the district’s latest protocols, Gwinnett County Assistant Superintendent Reuben Gresham told the Summer Journal, “It is not feasible for student athletes to social distance.”

As it turns out, it may not be feasible to relax standards either. On July 29, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 655 positive cases had been shared with the GHSA,
more than double the number on file two weeks earlier.

By August, Georgia had cancelled summer football scrimmages. It’s anyone’s guess if most districts will play football in September.

“The decisions necessitated by the current pandemic are literally changing almost daily,” said Steve Figueroa, Director of Media Relations for GHSA. “What we believed would be the case a month or even a week ago has often proven to be quite different in the present.”

As states scramble to re-start the school year, there appears to be an inverse correlation between high coronavirus rates and postponements.

Some of the states with the highest infection rates in the country, such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, say they are proceeding with fall sports.

Meanwhile, some of the states with the lowest rates, such as Oregon and Colorado, have postponed them until 2021. (Some of the hardest-hit states are also some of the most
enthusiastic about high school football.)

School districts committed to gridiron clashes under “Friday night lights” may consider heeding the Centers for Disease Control. Players are at especially high risk for transmission, the CDC warns, during “full competition between teams from different geographic areas.”

But for schools that play it safe, and postpone sports, will there be unintended consequences?

“Swimming has been my life,” said 17-year-old Michael F., a senior at West Boca Raton Community High School. Ranked 25th in the state of Florida and 422nd in the nation, he is one of the best at his craft. Last year, he started generating interest from recruiters from Georgia Tech, The College of Wooster, and a number of other schools.

But what will happen to that interest—and the scholarships that could come with it—if sports don’t resume?

The Florida High School Athletic Association has released three options for returning to
sports, but Palm Beach County has not specified which they will choose.

If sports don’t resume, “recruiting will be harder than ever,” said Monte Chapman, who coaches track and field at West Boca Raton. “There will be no way of approximating how much an athlete has or has not improved.”

In New York City, school officials have similar concerns. Ciana DeBellis is an assistant principal at the Fordham Leadership Academy in the Bronx. “We have students that were going to college on scholarships,” she told the Summer Journal. “I’m not really sure how that is going to work.”

On August 9, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City—like Chicago, Philadelphia, and other major cities—would be reopening its public schools for in-person instruction. But high school sports in the Big Apple, for better or for worse, would remain indefinitely postponed.

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