June 23, 2021

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Should Team Sports Happen This Year?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

What is the current status of sports at your school? What teams, if any, are competing now or have already completed their seasons?

Have you participated in any team sports this school year, or, if given the opportunity, do you think you would? Where do your family members stand on this issue? Do they think student athletes can be adequately protected from the coronavirus?

In “Despite Covid Outbreaks, Youth Sports Played On,” Dan Levin writes about the many factors at stake when schools and families decide to allow students to resume playing sports:

A year after the coronavirus crisis first closed athletic fields and darkened school gyms, students, parents, coaches and officials have struggled to navigate the challenges of youth sports, weighing concerns about transmitting the virus against the social, emotional and sometimes financial benefits of competition.

For months, a tangle of rules and restrictions that vary by state and sport has forced players and coaches to adapt. Vaccine rollouts and warmer spring temperatures have prompted some states to lift mask mandates and loosen guidelines, but health experts continue to urge caution for young athletes amid the spread of possibly more contagious variants of the virus.

Officials have linked Covid-19 outbreaks to ice rinks in Vermont, Florida and Connecticut, while a January report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that two high school wrestling tournaments in Florida led to nearly 80 people becoming infected with the virus, including one adult who died. In Minnesota, at least 68 cases since late January have been linked to participants in school-sponsored and club athletics, including hockey, wrestling and basketball, according to the state health department.

In at least some cases, the spread did not occur during competition, but at team-related gatherings. Recent data from the N.F.L. and the C.D.C. found that shared transportation and meals were the most common causes of the virus spreading among sports teams.

“It’s not an appropriate time to invite people over for a postgame pizza party,” said Dr. Susannah Briskin, an associate professor of pediatric sports medicine at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.

The author also interviewed several students and parents about their decisions to play this season or to sit it out:

Audrey Mann, 17, a high school senior in New Orleans, has not been inside a classroom since last March. She chose to remain a remote student even after the city’s school buildings reopened in the fall, before closing again during a surge in cases and then reopening in recent weeks.

But there was no way she was giving up athletics, Audrey said. She played volleyball and soccer in the fall, and softball and tennis now fill her afternoons after school, followed by club soccer practices that go until 8:30 p.m. Her weekends are similarly packed with club soccer games, which were moved to the spring as a result of fall pandemic restrictions.

“Sports for me is a huge mental thing,” said Audrey, who has a 4.0 grade-point average and is a captain of her three varsity teams. “I need to exercise and get out. It’s the only way I’m social over this past year.”

For parents, the potential impact of athletics on their children’s futures often played a role in decisions about playing time.

Willandria Middleton, a high school librarian in Montgomery, Ala., worried about the repercussions of forbidding her son, William, 17, from playing high school football. “Everybody was afraid, like, ‘Oh my God, if he gets it he might die,’” she said. “But I thought, well, to keep him from it — would that kill him as well, if he can’t play what he loves?”

Her son’s high school is more than 80 percent Black, and she said she agreed with William’s coaches that football provided much-needed structure for him and his teammates. “A lot of our young Black boys who play football here in Montgomery, that’s all they have to do,” Ms. Middleton said.

There were virus cases at William’s school, and at least four school district employees, including one of his coaches, died after battling Covid-19. But the football team finished the season without any outbreaks — perhaps, William said, because his head coach required the players to wear masks everywhere and prohibited them from attending in-person classes. “If you weren’t at practice or games, he didn’t want you out.”

For William, the pandemic season paid off. In December, he received a football scholarship to a junior college in New Mexico. “I just wanted to use my ability so my mother didn’t have to pay for me to go to college,” he said.

Some children and families, though, made difficult decisions to sit out the year.

Tyler Bihun, 18, a high school senior in Bloomington, Ill., and his twin brother have played hockey together for about 13 years. But they decided to stay off the ice after seeing opposition to face masks at their local indoor rink. “We just didn’t think it was very safe, and we didn’t want to expose our parents,” Tyler said.

The brothers also chose remote learning despite an option to return to classrooms two days a week.

Looking back, Tyler said he had no regrets. The travel team he used to play on had a Covid-19 outbreak that forced the cancellation of practices and games, and one of his former teammates was seriously ill for two weeks, he said. “I miss hockey, but giving it up was definitely the right decision.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you think team sports should happen this school year? Why? Did anything you read in the article change your mind?

  • If you were a team coach, what ground rules — for practices, competitions and other team gatherings — would you set to try to keep players and staff members safe? What logistical difficulties might your rules present? How would you overcome those obstacles?

  • Are sports currently being played at your school? If yes, what safety protocols are in place for players, coaches and spectators? Are people following the rules, and are they doing so without complaint? Do you think the rules do enough to keep people safe? In your opinion, are the rules reasonable or too strict?

  • Julie Castex, a mother in New Orleans, decided to allow her 18-year-old son, Ethan, to wrestle during his senior year of high school. She explained how she reached her conclusion:

“It’s scary because you’re letting your son compete in a very contact sport,” she said. “And while you’re looking at the data and thinking that he’s probably fine at his age, there is a risk. But everything else essentially has been taken away his senior year, and wrestling is pretty much all he got to do that was normal.

Do you have an activity, whether sports-related or not, that you have been able to continue during the pandemic and that serves a similar purpose in your life? Does the activity include the risk of spreading the coronavirus? How has your family handled the risk?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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