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Fall sports could significantly complicate reopening schools amid pandemic

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BOISE — The Coeur d’Alene School District recommended that more than 200 athletes and coaches follow a 14-day quarantine after three student-athletes tested positive for the coronavirus.

Those two-weeks are almost up, and it’s looking like the district avoided widespread contagion.

“So far, all indication is that this is not spreading among the student-athletes,” district spokesman Scott Maben said.

The potential perils of COVID-19 transmission through sports were front and center on Monday during a discussion of Gov. Brad Little’s school reopening committee, which is planning how to resume school in the fall against the grim backdrop of climbing coronavirus case numbers. Gina Pannell, program manager for Central District Health, warned that sports could significantly complicate reopening, particularly if kids travel to compete against different school districts.

“I don’t know how we’re going to keep schools in person if we intermingle school districts with sports,” Pannell told the group of government and school personnel. “We don’t want people shouting, let alone playing sports next to each other because of the risk of exposure.”

The Idaho High School Activities Association has not decided to cancel fall sports, such as football and soccer. If sports do return next month — after being canceled this spring — sports could see reductions and limitations to travel, opponents, crowds and tournaments.

Ty Jones, executive director of the IHSAA, said no options are off the table. His organization is working on guidance for how schools can mitigate the risk if students return to sports — but it’s also coming up with contingency plans for situations like season delays. The IHSAA is hoping to send out some of that guidance next week, Jones said.

“It changes so much, so fast,” Jones said. “The last couple of weeks in Idaho haven’t exactly had a lot of good news as far as the COVID spread. We’re approaching it with cautious optimism, but we’re also realists.”

Fall sports are slated to start on Aug. 10. But already cheerleaders, football and volleyball players are gearing up to compete in the kinds of high-stakes environments where just a handful of cases could potentially put hundreds at risk.

Coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets, and the risk of contracting the virus increases “the longer you are are around an individual and the closer you are in proximity,” said Katherine Hoyer, spokeswoman for the Panhandle Health District: “Certain close contact sports would make this sort of exposure opportunity likely if there were an unknown positive case among the team.”

The three student-athletes confirmed to have COVID in the Coeur d’Alene district played for separate sports teams at two different high schools, Maben said. The district believes the students contracted the virus outside of the school setting. And after the district learned of the infections, it suspended all summer sports for two weeks, not just the teams that the athletes played for.

Right now, Maben said, the district is feeling a bit of relief that the virus doesn’t appear to have spread from student-to-student. Hoyer, from Panhandle Health, confirmed to Idaho Education News on Monday that the health agency is only aware of the three cases of COVID connected to a school.

Coeur d’Alene’s student-athletes are due to return from their two-week hiatus starting this week, Maben said. They will practice in small groups called cohorts, instead of their full teams, and the gyms and equipment will be sanitized between use.

The district is still evaluating whether fall sports will begin as scheduled.

“We can’t let our guard down,” Maben said. “This really is a great reminder of how important it is to maintain all the safety precautions as we move forward. It only takes one positive case to basically shut down an entire team, or potentially an entire school, for up to several weeks.”

This article was originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on July 7, 2020

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