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Despite CDC reporting higher risk of virus spread, school sports to continue for now
Basketball Fans
Cherokee Bluff basketball fans watch the game against Dawson County on Feb. 1 in Flowery Branch. Photo by Corinne Thompson

In-school instruction may not pose a significant risk of increased COVID-19 transmission, according to recent CDC reports, but high school sports, particularly high contact sports, may pose more risk. 

The center released a pair of case studies at the end of January, one analyzing the transmission of COVID-19 in 12 schools in Wisconsin from August through November, and the other taking a closer look at two wrestling tournaments that took place in Florida last December. 

The first study found that incidences of COVID-19 were actually 37% lower in schools conducting in-person instruction than the surrounding community, concluding that “with masking requirements and student cohorting, transmission risk within schools appeared low, suggesting that schools might be able to safely open with appropriate mitigation efforts in place.” 

The second report was less optimistic, finding that a pair of Florida wrestling tournaments attended by only one individual known to be positive for COVID-19 prior to the events led to at least 79 new cases and one death of an individual older than 50. 

Ultimately, the case study states that “high-contact school athletic activities for which mask wearing and physical distancing are not possible should be postponed during periods with substantial or high levels of SARS-CoV-2 community transmission.”

Yet despite the warnings of the CDC, and despite the fact Hall County has been an area of high transmission throughout much of the last year, school officials from both the Hall County and Gainesville school systems said they have no plans to change the way they handle sports at this time. 

Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said the school has been carefully monitoring all sports teams since they returned to campus for offseason workouts in June, and so far the school district has found only minimal transmission of COVID-19 between athletes. Gainesville has had to temporarily shut down two teams since the start of the school year, but neither led to a significant outbreak, per Williams. 

“Even when we shut those teams down, we have not seen transmission quite like we anticipated to see,” he said. “We actually rarely saw it happen, even amongst our own extracurricular teams.”

Stan Lewis, Hall County’s Director of Athletics and Community Relations, had a similar message, saying that the district understood prior to the start of winter sports that playing indoor sports would be a challenging undertaking but that it is satisfied with the job that has been done.

“Our district has been fortunate that we’ve seen no outbreaks similar to the one referenced in the report,” he said. “We have had positive cases that led to quarantining others as a precaution. Some of these quarantines led to teams being unable to compete because of a lack of numbers, but it was the right approach. Our coaches have been instrumental in helping us minimize spread and avoiding outbreaks thus far.” 

In an analysis of the CDC reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Margaret A. Honein wrote that while the continued distribution of COVID-19 vaccines may make sports safe again in the near future, she believes that while a decision on continuing with or shutting down high school sports may be a difficult one, “decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the US.”

“Even though high school athletics are highly valued by many students and parents, indoor practice or competition and school-related social gatherings with limited adherence to physical distancing and other mitigation strategies could jeopardize the safe operation of in-person education,” Honein wrote in the article.

Both local school districts have taken a number of precautionary measures to maintain the safety of student athletes, including mandatory mask wearing at practice when not participating in a drill or activity, regular sanitization of equipment and practice areas, temperature checks before every game, meet or match and maintaining bus charts on trips to help with contact tracing in the event of a positive test. So far, there have not been any outbreaks like the one referenced in the CDC report. 

Northeast Georgia Health System encourages precautionary measures at sporting events, including "limiting the number of spectators in attendance, encouraging everyone to wear masks, offering hand sanitizing stations and following protocols for social distancing," according to a statement from Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s medical director of Infectious Disease Medicine.

Mannepalli also noted the positive mental health impacts of having sports.

"While there does appear to be an increased risk of virus transmission at sporting events, sports can also have a positive mental health impact on student-athletes that should be taken into consideration," she said. "Given all the factors at play, it’s hard to definitively say what’s the best overall approach to structure sports during the pandemic. It’s just one of the many tough decisions leaders at our local school systems have to make every day to balance the health and wellbeing of students, faculty, staff and families." 

School officials said they plan to continue allowing spectators for the remainder of the indoor sports seasons, despite the fact that the report mentions a spectator at one of the Florida wrestling tournaments who was over 50 years old ultimately died from COVID-19 after contracting it at the event. 

Lewis and Williams said they chose to reduce spectator capacity at both indoor and outdoor sporting events, with Hall County limiting ticket sales to just two tickets per participating athlete and Gainesville limiting capacity to just 25% at all sporting events. A lack of issues with spread amongst spectators has led both districts to continue to allow them to attend in a limited capacity.

“The reality is we’ve not seen a large number of cases or a number of cases that really concerns us that spectators being in an event is leading to an outbreak,” Williams said. 

Lewis said that with regard to decisions on spectators, Hall County would “rely on guidance from local health officials,” adding that he hopes the district will actually be able to relax some restrictions on spectators for outdoor spring sports. 

Both Lewis and Williams also said that while there are no plans for change right now, the discussion on high school sports — both allowing them to continue and allowing spectators to attend — is an ongoing one that is talked about on a near daily basis. 

And while continuing on with high school sports certainly poses its risks, Chestatee wrestling coach Scott DeGraff said he believes not having high school athletics could be even more dangerous for students. 

“I think that you run into kids finding other things to get into that aren’t the best choices, first and foremost,” he said. “And I’m speaking for all kids in all sports, really. When kids get bored, they find things to do, and generally those things can be not great choices.”

DeGraff said that the academic requirements to maintain athletic eligibility help motivate students in the classroom.

He also said that the protocols Hall County has put in place have helped to prevent outbreaks among athletic teams, adding that cooperation from student athletes has been key to maintaining safe competition.

“When kids aren’t feeling well, it’s hard for them to say ‘Hey coach, I’m not feeling well,’ because they know what’s coming next,” DeGraff said. “But our kids have done a really good job of communicating. That’s been the most important piece of this whole deal.”

Despite the risks involved, those involved in the decision-making processes for local high school sports maintained that every decision has been made with the mental health of student athletes in mind. 

“Many of our children are under a lot of stress amid the chaos of this pandemic, and many of them suffer trauma,” Lewis said. “We want to provide them with the support they need through a variety of resources. Extracurricular activities, we believe, play a critical role in that regard, and are an important piece of the educational process.”

A previous version of this article included inaccurate information about when the studies were released.
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