Iowa was the first state to resume high school sports during the coronavirus pandemic. After almost two months, the results from the experiment are not exactly encouraging.
On one hand, Iowa’s high school softball and baseball seasons have reached their tournament stages without any reported player hospitalizations. On the other hand, more than a dozen teams had to discontinue their seasons and even more were otherwise interrupted by COVID-19 cases.
Iowa’s apparent lack of strong safeguards for this summer’s athletics programs make us skeptical that school activities might resume in their normal forms this fall, if at all.
In early June, the Iowa Department of Education sent guidance on summer sports to school administrators. The one-page list has common-sense requirements for social distancing and not sharing equipment, but the guidance is unenforceable and inadequate.
The glaring omission from Iowa’s return-to-play project is virus testing. The state’s guidance does not mention testing, and only says administrators should contact public health authorities if a COVID-19 case “is reported.”
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We don’t know how many high school athletes have been tested, or how many have tested positive. If infected players are asymptomatic, they could be spreading the disease undetected.
There is strong evidence that children and teenagers are less susceptible to the worst outcomes of COVID-19, but that is no reason to be so careless with their health, or the health of everyone they come in contact with. Young people still might suffer long-term effects of coronavirus, and an outbreak on one team could ripple throughout the community and result in avoidable deaths.
Players and fans should be prepared for the possibility that no in-person school-sponsored activities will take place this academic year. If they do happen, there will need to be significant compromises. Teams might have to wear masks, reschedule seasons, limit travel, stagger starting times and forbid spectators.
It is imperative for the state government to set a consistent and quantifiable standard for when COVID-19 infections trigger the suspension of a season. That’s only possible if the state has a robust testing regimen and a transparent reporting process.
So far during this pandemic, state leaders have shown little interest in transparency, adequate testing or mandating best practices statewide — the things it would take to even have a shot at a full football or volleyball season.
If the prevailing approach persists, there’s no hope for a safe return to school sports this fall.
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