Opinion: Schools shouldn’t have to be the ‘bad guys’ with Return to Play strategies

Your move, school districts of New Hampshire.

The N.H. Interscholastic Athletic Association announced its stance on high school sports on Thursday, and it was a firm one: All sports are a go, from the fall to the spring, with fall practices permitted to start on Sept. 8.

Now it’s on the school districts to decide whether they’re in or they’re out, with little public clarity right now on the timeline or structure behind that process.

Like just about everything in 2020, we’re looking at two extreme ends of the spectrum, with very little room in between. You’re either all-in — like the 18 or so Portsmouth parents who spoke passionately about the need for interscholastic sports during Tuesday’s school board meeting, and the small group who petitioned outside City Hall on Friday. Or you’re out, citing the inherent risk associated with school sports, from the travel to outside districts, to the spectators (which are permitted), to the shared equipment and overall close quarters involved with contact sports like soccer, football, field hockey and volleyball games.

I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s not the most comfortable place to be.

I agree with the NHIAA’s decision to push forward with the fall sports season. It’s just way too early to shut things down. There’s literally a Little League District 2 playoff game happening in Portsmouth on Monday night. Summer baseball leagues are either nearing completion, or prepping for playoff games. Private pay-to-play club leagues for baseball, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey … they’ve all been operating to this point, and based on data delivered by a local health professional during Tuesday’s board meeting, summer sports have avoided serious virus-related issues.

“I will say that currently I’m not aware of any local hospitalizations for COVID,” said Todd Sigmon, a Lee resident. “I’ll tell you, the hospital I work for, we’ve had less than two dozen admitted patients in the past four, five months that have been positive for COVID. I’m not trying to minimize the impact of this illness for people that it has affected, but the impact in this area of New Hampshire has been minimal.”

The NHIAA is taking its best course, which right now is to hold firm, collect data and adjust accordingly. Collect data on August COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Collect data on what each school district (and each state) is thinking in terms of fully (or partially) opting out. Why is there still no official start date for competition? Because we have no idea what fall sports are going to look like come Sept. 8, if we even get there.

As sports fans (and I’ll include myself and any parent, athlete, coach or alumnus here), we’re staring at this through a lens specific to our wants and needs. We can’t help that. We see sports happening all around us without major incident. We see guidelines in place from the governor’s office. We see New Hampshire’s coronavirus statistics compared to other parts of the country. We see how sports prop up young people in our households and community. We want our lives back.

We want sports.

School district leaders can’t afford to join us. They’re looking through a different, much wider lens.

If, call it, 55% of the student body participates in a sport, the rest are participating in various other extracurriculars or school-sanctioned activities. Some not at all. Schools have to consider the whole pie, and the NHIAA’s Return to Play Guidance document includes statements that apply some serious pressure.

For example, this line: “The NHIAA believes it is essential to the physical, emotional and mental well-being of students to return to physical activity and athletic competition safely,” could be confused for just about any parent comment pulled from a social media message board.

“We do have to keep in mind that kids have not been in school since March, they have been separate,” one Portsmouth community member said during Tuesday’s board meeting. “This may be a reason why we’re not getting any kind of rapid infection among children. Bringing them back into school is going to present a very big risk itself, and that may be compounded by doing sports on top of that.”

We’re left with schools planning reopening strategies built on safety recommendations from health officials, but a strategy too extreme — like opting out of fall interscholastic sports, which Portsmouth has been preparing to do in the traditional sense — will draw the ire of more than half the families in the district.

I’m glad I’m not in a superintendent’s chair right now. The pressure continues to mount on a decision that has no right answer.

The one thing we can all agree on is that playing sports during a pandemic involves accepting risk, just like a trip to the public pool or a crowded hardware store. That’s life entering August of 2020: “What risk of exposure am I willing to accept today?”

Opting out of fall sports eliminates travel to outside districts, thus decreasing exposure and possible rapid transmission of COVID-19. That makes a lot of sense. But as we speak, baseball teams from Seacoast United, with players from Portsmouth, Exeter, Rochester, etc., are practicing together and playing games. There’s just no way to vacuum seal each SAU into a bubble. Every student, through sports, work, their parents and basic life, are exposed to countless people every day. Students will be mingling with students from neighboring districts, whether we play school sports this fall or not.

So maybe the best course of action right now … is not to act.

Maybe we take a page out of the NHIAA’s playbook, sit back and consume the data. Maybe we keep training. Keep preparing to get students back in classrooms. Keep doing our best to stem the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.

Schools shouldn’t have to be the “bad guys” here. Maybe they don’t have to be.

Maybe the middle of the spectrum is the place to be. Don’t opt out. Don’t even opt in. Don’t rush to a decision when things can change by the day. There’s still time.

Don’t do anything. Not yet.

Ryan O’Leary is the Seacoast Media Group sports editor. Reach Ryan directly by email at roleary@seacoastonline.com. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanOLearySMG.

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