As the coronavirus pandemic has progressed, schools in most parts of the country have reopened. Many schools are engaging in hybrid-model instruction, meaning that students are on campus for a certain number of days per week. Where it has become safe for schools to open, state and local authorities have largely authorized the playing of school sports.
Sports have become an important lifeline for young people, representing a return to normalcy, social interaction, and beneficial exercise. While the risk of coronavirus transmission remains, many schools are acknowledging the unique role played by sports in their communities.
Deven Patel, a sports expert and commissioner of the Michigan Ball Hockey Association, discusses how some schools are working within the new rules to enter back into sports.
When setting up safety guidelines for school sports, officials have had to carefully consider the ways in which the pandemic is communicated from person to person. Generally, close contact is the most likely to transmit the infection. Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of a person who has been infected with the disease. This contact lasts at least 15 minutes.
The way in which the virus spreads through close contact is through respiratory droplets. When a person coughs, sneezes, talks, or shouts, respiratory droplets are spread into the air. If a player is infected with COVID-19, their respiratory droplets could be picked up through the mouth, eyes, and nose of others on the field. This is why masks are so valuable to prevent transmission of the disease.
Recently, scientists have found that the virus can also be spread through aerosolized droplets, which can linger in the air for a matter of minutes or hours. This form of transmission is most likely to occur indoors or in poorly ventilated spaces.
While children and teens are at low risk of serious illness if they are infected by the coronavirus, they can easily bring the virus home to high-risk and elderly relatives. Thus, corralling the spread of COVID among young people is a high priority.
One of the best ways to avoid spreading COVID-19 is to practice social distancing. Social distancing is defined as staying 6 feet away from people who are not part of your household at all times. Social distancing may be simple for some sports, such as baseball and track, but it may be much more complicated for sports like football and basketball. State health regulators and athletic boards, along with youth sports leaders like Deven Patel, have had to make judgment calls regarding the safety of their players.
Which Sports are Allowed?
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has made determinations regarding which sports are safe to continue in the wake of COVID and which sports should be avoided for the time being.
Michigan’s rules state that “contact sports” like football and wrestling must be postponed. These sports include lacrosse, wrestling, hockey, boxing, basketball, football, field hockey, and rugby. Many players and fans have been disappointed by these rulings, but most members of the community would agree that they are necessary to protect public health.
Safeguards for Coaches, Fans, and Players
Many contact sports are able to practice even if they cannot compete at this time. In contexts where sports teams continue to practice and compete, the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services recommends taking certain steps to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
The first step that should be taken is wearing face coverings. Adjusting the intensity of physical activity and taking rest breaks can help players and coaches tolerate masks while they are practicing. If an athlete cannot wear a cloth mask while practicing, a plastic face shield would also be acceptable.
Another important step is enforcing hand washing and the covering of sneezes and coughs. This simple and low-tech intervention may be one of the best ways to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Coaches must make sure that employees, spectators, and participants have access to soap, paper towels, approved hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and facial tissues.
It is also essential to make sure that students do not share items that are hard to disinfect, sanitize, or clean. Towels and clothing are two items that should not be shared.
Equipment must be fully sanitized between each use. An adult staffer should be tasked with sanitization. Approved disinfection products must be used. Make sure that all staff are properly trained in disinfection processes.
Carpooling should also be altered to make sure students are safe. When possible, students should only ride with people in their own households. This reduces the likelihood of transmission in a crowded car or bus.
Finally, players, coaches, and spectators should know that they cannot hug, shake hands, fist bump, high five, or celebrate with any kind of contact.
Restricted Regional Play
Many areas have also mandated that sports teams choose their opponents from a smaller geographic area than they normally would. For example, drawing teams from only one county, as opposed to the entire state, would cut down on regional transmission.
In Case of Infection
If players, coaches, or spectators are infected, school sports should be shut down. Infected players should be quarantined in accordance with local and school department regulations. It is possible that case positives will also cause a school district to move from in-person or hybrid to fully remote instruction.
Parents, schools, and state governments share the responsibility of keeping students safe. When these regulations are followed, it is less likely that there will be cases of COVID transmission. While students may be disappointed that they cannot compete in contact sports at the present time, they should know that they are helping to protect the health of the community as a whole.
Deven Patel encourages youth sports leaders to follow all of these recommendations and to keep up to date regarding the newest regulations concerning the virus.