By Laura Ungar
That story also ran on USA Today. It can be republished for free.
This spring, high school senior Nathan Kassis will be playing baseball in the shadow of Covid-19 – wearing a neck cuff under his catcher's mask, sitting 6 feet from his teammates in the dugout, and swapping elbow bumps for hugs after wins.
"We're looking forward to a season," said the 18-year-old catcher from Dublin Coffman High School outside Columbus, Ohio. "This game is something we really love."
Kassis, whose team started training, is one of the millions of young people returning to ball fields, tennis courts and golf courses. Pandemic precautions, however, point to a very different time of year this year, and some school districts are still delaying gaming – resulting in spats for parents, coaches and public health experts across the country.
Since the fall, many parents have campaigned for their children to play sports and have objected to some safety guidelines, such as restricting the number of spectators. Doctors have now failed to reach consensus on whether contact sports are safe enough, especially indoors. Although children are less likely than adults to get Covid, they can still spread it, and children under the age of 16 cannot yet be vaccinated.
At the beginning of the pandemic, less was known about the virus, so college sports basically stopped last spring and resumed in seizures and bouts in some places in the fall and winter. Some children turned to recreational leagues when their school teams were not an option.
But now, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, every state, if not every district, has public high school sports. The schedules are being changed and shortened in many places so that as many sports as possible, including those that are not normally played in the spring, can compensate for earlier cancellations.
Trainers and doctors agree that exercising during a pandemic needs to balance the risk of Covid with benefits such as improved cardiovascular fitness, strength, and mental health. School sports can lead to college scholarships for the best athletes, but even for those who finish competitive sports in high school, the rewards of playing can be substantial. However, decisions about resuming sport involve weighing the importance of academics versus athletics, as adding covid risks from sport could jeopardize personal learning during the pandemic.
Tim Saunders, executive director of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association and coach at Dublin Coffman, said the pandemic had left players mentally and socially stressful. In a May survey of more than 3,000 teenage athletes in Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin researchers found that about two-thirds reported symptoms of anxiety and the same proportion reported symptoms of depression. Other studies have generally shown similar problems for students.
"You have to look at the kids and their depression," Saunders said. “You have to be outside. You need to be with your friends. "
Before children are allowed to play sports, coaches and school administrators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should consider things like the students' underlying health conditions, the physical proximity of the players in the sport, and the prevalence of local spread.
Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the high schools association, has argued that spring sports should be available to all students after last year's cancellations. She said the prevalence of students among athletes – and the adults who live and work with them – correlates with transmission rates in the community.
"Exercise itself is not a spreader if the right precautions are taken," she said.
However, outbreaks have occurred. A January report by CDC researchers pointed to a high school wrestling tournament in Florida where 38 out of 130 participants were diagnosed with Covid. (Less than half were tested.) The report's authors said that outbreaks related to youth sports suggest that close contact during exercise, competitions, and related social gatherings increases the risk of disease and "the safe operation of personal Could endanger education ”.
Dr. Kevin Kavanagh, an infection control expert in Kentucky who heads Health Watch USA's national patient safety group, said contact sports are "very problematic," especially those played indoors. He said heavy breathing during exertion could increase the risk of covid, even if students are wearing cloth masks. Ideally, indoor contact sports should only be practiced after the pandemic.
"These are not professional athletes," said Kavanagh. "They are children."
A study published in January by University of Wisconsin researchers interviewing high school sports directors representing more than 150,000 athletes nationally confirms the idea that indoor contact sports are at higher risk among athletes who use non-contact outdoors – Do sports that have a lower incidence of Covid such as golf and tennis.
Overall, "there isn't much evidence of inter-player transmission in the open air," said Dr. Andrew Watson, lead author of the study he is submitting for peer-reviewed publication.
Dr. Jason Newland, professor of pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis, said that all kinds of youth sports, including indoor contact sports like basketball, can be safe with the right preventive measures. He helped his daughter play basketball while she wore a mask at her high school in Kirkwood, Missouri.
Doctors also pointed out other safety measures, such as: For example, avoiding changing rooms, keeping 6 feet away from children when they are not playing, and requiring children to bring their own water to play with.
"The reality is that sports can be played for safety reasons," Newland said. "It's dinner with the team, the night with the team – this is where the problem arises. It's not the actual games."
In Nevada's Clark County School District, administrators said they would not resume the sport until after grades 6-12 students returned to face-to-face classes as part of a hybrid model in late March. Cases in the county have plummeted in recent weeks, from a seven-day average of 1,924 cases per day on Jan 10 to about 64 on March 3.
At the beginning of April, the exercises for spring sports such as track, swimming, golf and volleyball are to begin. Autumn intramural sports are held in April and May. Spectators are not allowed.
Parents who wanted the sport to start much earlier formed Let Them Play Nevada, one of many groups that showed up to protest the suspension of youth athletics. The Nevada group gathered outside the Clark County school district offices late last month just before the superintendent announced the reopening of schools for personal learning.
Let Them Play Nevada organizer Dennis Goughnour said his son Trey, a senior soccer player who also runs on the track, was "very, very upset" about not playing this fall and winter.
With the reopening, he said, Trey will be able to run the track, but the intramural football that will soon be allowed is "a joke", essentially just practicing with a game of scrimmage.
“Basically, your senior year in football is a closed business. We're fighting for maybe a game, at least a bowl game for the college squad, ”he said. "You did something, but too little, too late."
Goughnour said Let Them Play is also struggling to get viewers at games. The audience limit has angered parents across the country and "caused a lot of setbacks," said Niehoff of the high schools association.
Parents have also objected to travel restrictions, quarantine rules, and different mask requirements. In Orange County, Florida, hundreds of parents signed a petition last fall against mandatory Covid testing for soccer players.
For their part, students have quickly adapted to the demands of the pandemic, including rules for masks, distancing and locker rooms, said Matt Troha, deputy general manager of the Illinois High School Association.
Ohio baseball player Kassis said it is a small price to pay to do what it takes to be safe to be back in the game.
"We couldn't play at all last spring. I haven't touched baseball this summer," he said. "It's my senior year. I want to have a season and I'll be devastated if we don't. "