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High School Sports

The ‘gray unknown’ of high school sports amid COVID needs flexibility and creativity, state health authorities say

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: July 13, 2020
  • Published July 13, 2020

A high school athlete who flies to a competition and tests positive for the new coronavirus during the road trip won’t go home when the game is over, Alaska health authorities said Monday.

“You can’t get on a plane and fly if you’re positive and so they may be there for a bit of time, and all those close contacts,” said Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.

“This is part of the world of living with COVID right now, is we are having to think about what happens if someone tests positive and making sure people aren’t going on the trip if they’re not feeling well.”

Zink spoke during a briefing about a safe return of high school sports and other activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hour-long online discussion drew about 175 participants, many of them coaches and school administrators from across the state.

Zink and others touched on topics ranging from what happens if a student tests positive while on a road trip to whether it’s safe to allow choirs and bands to perform to whether bubbles blown in chlorinated water can spread the virus. (The answer to the last question, according to state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin: Probably not.)

Kids or coaches who aren’t feeling well or are showing any of the many and varied symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home, Zink and others said — whether that means missing a practice or missing a road trip.

Schools need to be thinking now how they will respond if someone tests positive while they are traveling or hosting another team, said Billy Strickland, the head of the Alaska School Activities Association. Many towns in Alaska don’t have hotels where a student or coach could isolate for several days.

“For a high school-aged student, you’d probably be putting them in a room somewhere and guarding the door to not let them come out and hope the Netflix is entertaining them,” Strickland said.

High school football teams are already practicing, and other fall sports — among them, cross country, flag football, tennis and swimming — will begin practice soon. Competitions are scheduled to begin in late August.

Strickland said ASAA doesn’t plan to alter the 2020-21 sports calendar by moving any fall sports to the winter or spring.

“Some thought was put into that but the decision was not to change things,” he said.

Zink, Strickland, McLaughlin and others fielded numerous questions during the briefing, which attracted a big crowd that seemed to impress — but not surprise — Zink.

“It’s great to see 175 of you in here,” she said. “As I think I told Billy Strickland one day, I think my daughter is more interested in sports returning than school restarting, and I think activities are just so important to the physical and mental health of our kids.”

“There’s not a perfectly risk-free versus completely high-risk scenario. It’s a long spectrum of risk/benefits, and that’s where I really appreciate all of you standing in this gray, unknown space of trying to minimize the risk of COVID and keeping kids active and healthy and safe.”

Part of living with COVID means being flexible and creative, she said. When someone asked what the outlook is for bands and choirs since they “clearly can’t wear masks,” Zink didn’t miss a beat.

“You can, and there’s some great choirs doing some amazing work with (masks) on,” she said. “Percussion instruments don’t spread the virus, so look at building up your percussion and doing things outside.

“… Be creative about that.”

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