To Play, Or Not To Play: Schools Wrestle With CDC's Athletics Recommendations

Feb 13, 2021

High school senior Audrianna Hill has been playing basketball since she was five years old. But this winter, with Covid-19 cases rising, there was a chance she might not get to play. Her Detroit school has been virtual since the pandemic began, and the basketball season has been pushed back multiple times since September. Basketball is a big part of who she is, and she's been banking on her last year of playing to help get her recruited. The suspensions haven't helped.

"It's made it harder for me to go to college," Hill, a varsity player, explains. "Schools can't come and actually watch you. You have to rely on technology, and I don't know if some [college] coaches feel like watching 50 [performance] videos of different kids."

Student athletes like Hill are still hoping for a full season this year, but recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be working against them.

New CDC guidance released Friday cautions against resuming athletic activities – especially those that happen inside. The report says that for communities that have substantial rates of transmission, sports and other activities should only take place "if they can be held outdoors, with physical distancing of 6 feet or more." Communities that have high transmission should stick to virtual activities.

A previous CDC report singled out activities where athletes can't social distance and wear masks — effectively ruling out sports like swimming, wrestling and, to Hill's dismay, basketball.

The report focuses on two wrestling tournaments held in an unnamed county in Florida in early December. A total of 130 wrestlers, coaches and referees attended, representing 10 different high schools from three different counties. After the tournaments, local officials learned an attendee had tested positive for the virus, and subsequently confirmed 38 other cases of infection. (Only 54 attendees were tested, making for a 70% positivity rate.) Details about social distancing and mask-wearing were not provided.

The report cites American Academy of Pediatrics guidance that advises against wearing a mask during wrestling, competitive cheerleading, gymnastics and water sports because masks can become a choking hazard, or make it difficult to breath.

The takeaway, a CDC official tells NPR, is that academics should be a priority as schools consider when to resume certain in-person activities: "The emphasis should be placed on the educational needs of students. When it comes to extracurricular activities, if it's problematic to conduct those activities without taking the steps that we know work, we believe that officials should consider delaying or postponing."

Recommendations in play

Those recommendations aren't always being followed at the local level. While some school leaders have postponed athletic seasons during the pandemic, others have forged ahead.

In Louisiana, many K-12 schools have had both a fall and winter sports season, and most are open for at least some in-person learning.

Eddie Bonine, head of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA), has worked to ensure that sports continue, though he's concerned about the social interactions that happen around them.

"If all of the athletes are negative going into the game, knock the heck out of each other for three hours, and then sit on the sidelines with masks on," he says, that shouldn't cause an outbreak.

"It's when they leave [the field] is when there's an issue."

It's harder to control what happens around sporting events. Virus spread isn't limited to athletic competitions — three CDC scientists recently wrote that outbreaks can also happen during practices and social gatherings associated with team sports, like pep rallies.

Bonine says that's exactly what happened in mid-January at the Louisiana Classic, a high school wrestling tournament held in Gonzales, La., 30 minutes outside Baton Rouge.

"It was set up for failure from the get-go," Bonine says.

According to the tournament's host, the event drew 365 wrestlers from 46 schools around the state, and 703 spectators. Bonine says there were no bleachers, and spectators ended up crowding around the wrestling mats, trying to get close to the action.

"They wanted to see how close they can get to the mat, just short of having an octagon cage up. It's like the [Ultimate Fighting Championship]," Bonine says, referring to the popular mixed martial arts competitions.

A week later, the state's health department declared an outbreak connected to the tournament. Health officials reported more than 20 cases of athletes, staff and attendees testing positive for the coronavirus.

The sport is currently on pause throughout the state in order for wrestlers to be able to take part in the state championship tournament in late February. According to the event organizers, the competition is slated to host more people than the Classic did — 700 wrestlers, and up to 1,800 spectators each day.

Bonine says the upcoming competition will have more safety precautions in place than the Classic.

"No food's being served. Nobody will be on the floor but a wrestler. We have everybody separated out — mitigating measures in place, masks being worn, social distancing with teams and players."

#LetThemPlay

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, schools have been closed to in-person learning since November, but sports have been up and running since the fall, save for an interruption in December and January.

Karen Arnold, who oversees athletic programs for Pittsburgh Public Schools, is balancing the community's safety with the push to play. She says the district considered the CDC's recommendations and ultimately decided there were enough precautions in place for athletics to continue safely.

"If people do what they're supposed to do, across the board, I do feel confident that we can move through this process," she says. "If we start having whole teams being shut down, we will have to sit down and address that with our department of health services."

Arnold adds that with school still fully online, students were feeling cooped up and athletics provided a necessary relief. "They were excited to come back," she explains.

The decision was also a relief for parents, who were eager for their kids to regain some sense of normalcy. The sentiment was echoed throughout the community: parents, students, coaches, and community members started tweeting about the importance of school sports under the hashtag #LetThemPlay, Arnold says.

Athletes and coaches in Detroit have also used the hashtag. On February 4th, they received good news: students would be able to return to practices and competitions. Shane Lawal, Audrianna Hill's basketball coach, was relieved.

Before his students knew basketball would start again, he could tell that not being able to play was having a negative affect on their mental health. "They were definitely less motivated," he explains.

But after the news the suspension was being lifted, he noticed an immediate change in morale – especially in Hill.

"She was really sad and upset about the state of the season," says Lawal. When Hill finally returned to the court, he knew that something had changed. "She played so freakin' hard. She was playing like this was the only game she was gonna get to play this year, you could tell for her – it's her last chance."

Eda Uzunlar is an intern on NPR's Education Desk.

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