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While the 2020–21 school year began with classes conducted online, the district’s athletic program began practices in August and continued with fall and winter seasons, adhering to a variety of pandemic-related protocols. (Photo by Kathleen Galarza)

School sports amid pandemic

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No fist bumps or high fives. No good-sport handshakes before or after a game. No sharing of equipment, water or gear. No packing the stands with supporters. And the limited spectators allowed must wear face masks and remain physically distant from others. Plus, masking and distancing rules also apply to coaches as well as student athletes not engaged in active play.

This is the look of school sports in the time of COVID.

But what of the experience itself? The rules in place this year address concerns about the health and well-being of student players, but the underlying question remains: Is it safe to field teams and compete against other schools amid a pandemic?

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It’s a question that consumes Yellow Springs Athletic Director Jeff Eyrich.

“I know there are multiple people who are not happy with me for having athletics at all,” Eyrich said, but he added that he believes it’s important that the district offer an opportunity to play sports, as long as safety protocols are followed. Families can then choose whether they feel comfortable with their children participating, he said.

“We do everything we can to keep students safe,” he asserted. In addition to the masking and distancing rules, athletes’ temperatures are taken before every practice and game, and their general wellness is monitored. Team balls and other equipment are sanitized regularly as well.

Eyrich said that if kept safe, school athletics provide a wealth of benefits for young people that extend beyond physical health and fitness.

“It improves their mental state,” he said. “It stimulates their minds after hours in front of a screen,” adding that online schooling has only increased the time young people log onto their electronic devices, already their go-to platform for entertainment and socializing remotely with friends.

In a separate phone call, McKinney Middle School and YS High School Principal Jack Hatert spoke similarly of the benefits of athletics, noting that the pandemic-related changes and restrictions in students’ lives have made the opportunity to play sports all the more precious.

“Besides the personal growth, there’s [the lessons] of being part of a team, that camaraderie, being part of something larger than themselves,” said Hatert, who played sports as a student and coached school teams as a teacher before becoming principal. “To lose that would be terrible,” he said of the team community experience.

“For many students, it’s the co-curriculars and extracurriculars that keep kids connected to their schools,” he added.

The decision to play

After the closure last spring of Ohio’s K–12 schools — including the canceling of all sports and extracurricular activities — for the remainder of the academic year, there was a question this summer whether the Ohio High School Athletic Association, or OHSAA, would support school play this fall, and whether Gov. Mike DeWine would agree. Once they did, with DeWine giving the green light for competitive play in mid-August, Yellow Springs school leaders decided to move forward with the district’s program, which had already begun a limited and modified practice schedule at the beginning of the month.

Although the Yellow Springs school district has yet to resume in-person classes, opting for an online instructional model for at least the first two quarters of the 2020–21 academic year, the athletic programs at YS High School and McKinney Middle School decided to field teams and conduct games as close as possible to regular season play. In doing so, they joined other area school districts, many of which had returned to in-person classes, at least part time.

“OHSAA and the governor made it clear that it’s completely up to the school district if we continue our sports program and how we manage it,” as long as basic protocols are followed, Eyrich said.

A fall season, which consisted of cross country, volleyball and girls and boys soccer, opened the way for a winter season of high school boys and girls basketball and a bowling team, as well as a combined middle school boys and girls basketball squad. Low numbers of players going out for the McKinney basketball teams led the school to put those squads together. Swimming, traditionally a winter sport, was scuttled this year, however, because of low numbers and a scarcity of venues, Eyrich said. The athletic director attributed the lower numbers in all sports to hesitancy on the part of some players and their families because of the pandemic.

John Gudgel, a counselor at the elementary school, former principal at the middle/high school and an assistant coach for track and cross country, said that cross-country runners welcomed the chance to participate this fall.

“It was very obvious that our students relished having a gathering spot where they could just be students in a somewhat ‘normalized’ manner,” he wrote in an email last month.

Noting that students who began training with the team in August hadn’t been together since the governor closed schools in March, Gudgel wrote that seeing their pleasure in reuniting after four-and-a-half months “was heartwarming.”

He also asserted that keeping the experience safe was paramount for the adults in charge.

“Following protocol was very important to us as coaches,” he said, adding that the coaches checked runners’ temperatures before every practice and instituted social distancing during stretches and training runs.

Before the competition season began, and after surveying families, the coaches decided to participate in meets with a limited number of participating teams, rather than the typically large invitationals that could include 500 to 600 competitors as well as spectators. Consequently, the coaches scheduled three small home meets involving three to four schools, rather than the single large meet held annually at Young’s Dairy, and limited the number of their away meets as well.

The chance to run with their peers meant so much to some students, “we even had a group of runners that continued to come to ‘practice’ after the conclusion [of the season], as they wanted an outlet where they could gather with their teammates in a structured social setting,” Gudgel said.

Playing in uncertainty

Keeping the program going is a daily challenge, Eyrich said. The district follows OHSAA, CDC and county health department regulations outlining protocols for notifications and quarantines when a student has been exposed.

In keeping with those, all basketball practices and games were suspended for two weeks at the end of December after a member of the boys varsity basketball team tested positive for coronavirus. The youth got a positive result on a rapid test on Thursday, Dec. 17, after waking up that day with a headache, Eyrich said.

Eyrich said he checked in with the players and coaches regularly, and no one else reported symptoms or a positive test. Much of the suspension occurred over the district’s winter break; online classes resumed Jan. 5. The bowling team, which Eyrich also coaches, already had a break scheduled at that time.

Rebecca DeWine at a cross-contry meet last fall. (Photo by Kathleen Galarza)

Eyrich said the fact that the athletic program went case-free for over four months of play was a testament to the caution and care taken by the coaches, athletes and their families, but the case illustrates the uncertainty surrounding playing through the pandemic.

Senior Annlyn Foster, a multi-sport athlete who plays on the girls basketball team, says she hopes that they’re able to complete their season, which had a 5–1 record before break.

“We try to make the best of it,” she wrote in an email about all the COVID-related protocols. “But when cases get bigger, I start to wonder more if we even continue to have a season.”

She played both volleyball and soccer in the fall.

“For volleyball, I am very grateful to have had a chance to play with the girls I have been playing with since I started volleyball, and ever since my sophomore and junior year. For soccer, they didn’t have many girls to begin with so I decided to help them out for games, and it was an exciting experience,” she said.

Still, she had concerns.

“I was very cautious about playing with other teams, especially outside our conference, because you didn’t know who they were hanging around with and if they were exposed to it.”

She holds out hope for spring track and field proceeding, especially after it was canceled last year.

“I am looking forward to track because that is where I would need to impress colleges for my times,” she wrote. She also has goals of “going to state and beating at least two high school records before I leave.”

Her teammate Haneefah Jones, also a multi-sport senior, said she is glad to be able to participate in school sports, but she also feels anxiety around it amid the pandemic.

“For me participating in athletics this year is important because it’s my senior year and my last time playing all the sports I love,” she wrote in an email last month. “I started playing sports because I was interested, but it became a way to socialize and make friends. Also, it’s just fun.”

The pandemic has changed her experience, however.

“It’s been very strange playing sports during COVID-19,” she wrote. Although a variety of protocols have been put in place for practices and sidelines, the actual play on the field or court remains the same, and that feels like a conflict.

“As cases started to increase and we got closer to the fall season I thought for sure we wouldn’t have a season. I was surprised when we did. I was kind of glad because it’s my senior year, and I wanted to have proper closure with all my sports. However, the whole season [playing soccer] seemed off because every time I competed I potentially could be exposed. I feel the same way for winter sports but worse. Mainly because it’s indoors, a contact sport, and cases are higher than before. I love playing basketball, and I won’t stop until it’s over for me, but during COVID it’s a big risk. There’s never a time you REALLY feel safe, because you never know who has COVID or who’s been exposed.”

She said she worries not just for herself and her teammates, but also her loved ones.

“Every time I come home I could be exposing my whole family,” she wrote.

A focus on safety

Parent Nancy Sundell-Turner said she appreciated the care coaches took in monitoring players’ welfare during the fall season. Her eldest daughter, Cheyan Sundell-Turner, a sophomore, is a standout on the high school girls cross-country team; and her son, Jia, an eighth grader, ran with the middle school team.

“The coaches did a great job keeping everyone safe and following the required procedures,” she wrote in an email. “Some kids ran with masks the whole time during practice, and others took theirs off once they were spread out on their routes.”

The district meet at the end of the season “was divided up into smaller groups than normal, so each race was about half the normal size. They also spread out the races so that fewer people were present at one time,” she wrote. “The runners were not required to wear masks during the races, but they wore them up until lining up at the start line. The Yellow Springs team all ran with their masks in hand so that they could put them back on as soon as they crossed the finish line, but many teams handed them off to coaches to hold on to.”

“Our family definitely appreciated the kids being able to have a cross-country season, even though it was different from other years,” Sundell-Turner wrote.

In a separate phone call, her husband, T.J. Turner, who is also a member of the school board, agreed.

“This whole year has been challenging and different,” he said, saying he was speaking as a parent. In observing Cheyan’s experience with the high school team, and son Jia’s experience with the middle school squad, he said he saw their participation as providing “mental relief” from being home every day, especially for Jia, who is less solitary than Cheyan.

“His social-emotional well-being was served by being with his friends,” Turner said.

The father also was glad to see his children getting exercise and “fresh air.”

“It was a good thing,” he said of the kids’ experience. “It would have been a harder year without it.”

Athletic Director Eyrich spoke similarly about his son Eli, a sophomore, who in addition to basketball this winter, played soccer in the fall.

“Before the season started, we sat down and had a talk, not as athletic director and player, but as father and son,” Eyrich said. They discussed safety and protocols and comfort levels, he said.

Eli’s response was, “I need my soccer. I need my basketball.”

High school girls soccer coach Jonina Kelley said that she observed an emotional and physical need among her players this fall.

“I saw how much the girls needed an outlet,” she said. “They would literally be bouncing off the walls when they arrived for practice,” she said in a recent phone call.

Kelley said she and assistant coach Sarah Wallis worked not only on helping the athletes develop their soccer skills, but also in addressing their emotional needs dealing with the challenges of the pandemic.

“We had one practice where we just stood in a circle and talked and shared” about what the girls were feeling, Kelley said.

The coach said that she didn’t think teams got enough direction from the state about setting up COVID safety measures, but “Jeff [Eyrich] did a really great job of giving us some protocols.”

She also felt that Yellow Springs took more precautions than other schools. Specifically, some schools regard their athletic teams as family-like “pods,” which affects the stringency with which they follow physical distancing measures within the team. Yellow Springs, however, “tries keeping [players] as distant from each other as much as possible,” Kelley said.

“Some of these kids have boyfriends, girlfriends, parents who work,” she said. “They’re teenagers. They’re going to be in contact with other people.”

In addition to maintaining physical distancing when possible, the girls soccer team also took temperatures before practices and games, wore masks when not playing, used hand sanitizer after touching a ball and cleaned balls after use, she said. Team transportation to away games involved wearing masks, opening windows and popping open the top of the bus “to allow for additional air flow.” A small team, about 11 players consistently, allowed the athletes to spread out on the bus. Spectators were limited to two per player.

A similar restriction on spectator numbers was put into effect at the beginning of the basketball season. With the surge in cases across the county in November, however, the district eliminated spectators completely and began livestreaming the basketball games online.

Eyrich said that with the resumption of games after winter break, the district is again allowing spectators, but only two per athlete, with the requirement that they be close family members whose names are submitted by the player beforehand. The livestreaming will continue as well, he said.

Reached this week for an update on the program, Eyrich said all the teams were “back in full swing” following the winter break and suspension of basketball play.

Having had a positive case and keeping it contained emphasizes the need to maintain protocols, he said. His main goal is “to make sure we keep kids safe with the uncertainty around us.”

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