For spring season, young athletes get back in the game despite COVID risk

For spring season, young athletes get back in the game despite COVID risk

For spring season, young athletes get back in the game despite COVID risk
For spring season, young athletes get back in the game despite COVID risk
By Laura Ungar Kaiser Health News
Mar 16, 2021
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St. Louis Bears youth baseball players Mac Floyd, left, 14, gets a elbow bump from this brother and assistant coach Robby Floyd as Mac rounds the bases after smacking a homer during the Mother's Day Classic baseball tournament organized by GameTime Tournaments in Cottleville on Saturday, May 9, 2020. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com
David Carson
Players walk back to the dugout with softballs after batting practice during a Nerinx Hall High School girls varsity softball team practice at Kirkwood Athletic Association Denis Hummert Fields in Kirkwood on Wednesday, September 9, 2020. St. Louis County has released new guidelines for youth athletics allowing teams younger than age 14 to play games starting September 11, teams older than 14 years old are still not allowed to play games. The team has been practicing since August 10, they don't expect their first game until sometime in October. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com
Colter Peterson
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By Laura Ungar Kaiser Health News
This spring, high school senior Nathan Kassis will play baseball in the shadow of COVID-19 — wearing a neck gaiter under his catcher’s mask, sitting 6 feet from teammates in the dugout and trading elbow bumps for hugs after wins.
“We’re looking forward to having a season,” said the 18-year-old catcher for Dublin Coffman High School, outside Columbus, Ohio. “This game is something we really love.”
Kassis, whose team has started practices, is one of the millions of young people getting back onto ballfields, tennis courts and golf courses amid a decline in COVID cases as spring approaches. But pandemic precautions portend a very different season this year, and some school districts still are delaying play — spurring spats among parents, coaches and public health experts across the nation.
Since fall, many parents have rallied for their kids to be allowed to play sports and objected to some safety policies, such as limits on spectators. Doctors, meanwhile, haven’t reached a consensus on whether contact sports are safe enough, especially indoors. While children are less likely than adults to become seriously ill from COVID, they can still spread it, and those under 16 can’t be vaccinated yet.
Less was known about the virus early in the pandemic, so high school sports basically stopped last spring, starting up again in fits and spurts over the fall and winter in some places. Some kids turned to recreational leagues when their school teams weren’t an option.
But now, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, public high school sports are underway in every state, though not every district. Schedules in many places are being changed and condensed to allow as many sports as possible, including those not usually played in the spring, to make up for earlier cancellations.
Coaches and doctors agree that playing sports during a pandemic requires balancing the risk of COVID with benefits such as improved cardiovascular fitness, strength and mental health. School sports can lead to college scholarships for the most elite student athletes, but even for those who end competitive athletics with high school, the rewards of playing can be extensive. Decisions about resuming sports, however, involve weighing the importance of academics against athletics, since adding COVID risks from sports could jeopardize in-person learning during the pandemic.
Tim Saunders, executive director of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association and coach at Dublin Coffman, said the pandemic has taken a significant mental and social toll on players. In a May survey of more than 3,000 teen athletes in Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin researchers found that about two-thirds reported symptoms of anxiety and the same portion reported symptoms of depression. Other studies have shown similar problems for students generally.
“You have to look at the kids and their depression,” Saunders said. “They need to be outside. They need to be with their friends.”
Before letting kids play sports, though, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, coaches and school administrators should consider things like students’ underlying health conditions, the physical closeness of players in the specific sport and how widely COVID is spreading locally.
Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the high school federation, has argued that spring sports should be available to all students after last year’s cancellations. She said COVID spread among student athletes — and the adults who live and work with them — is correlated to transmission rates in the community.
“Sports themselves are not spreaders when proper precautions are in place,” she said.
Still, outbreaks have occurred. A January report by CDC researchers pointed to a high school wrestling tournament in Florida after which 38 of 130 participants were diagnosed with COVID. (Fewer than half were tested.) The report’s authors said outbreaks linked to youth sports suggest that close contact during practices, competitions and related social gatherings all raise the risk of the disease and “could jeopardize the safe operation of in-person education.”
Dr. Kevin Kavanagh, an infection control expert in Kentucky who runs the national patient safety group Health Watch USA, said contact sports are “very problematic,” especially those played indoors. He said heavy breathing during exertion could raise the risk of COVID even if students wear cloth masks. Ideally, he said, indoor contact sports should not be played until after the pandemic.
“These are not professional athletes,” Kavanagh said. “They’re children.”