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High School ADs Dispute Link Between Sports, COVID-19 Spike

High school football practices started Wednesday in Illinois, while the boys basketball season continues through March 13.
NPR Illinois
High school football practices started Wednesday in Illinois, while the boys basketball season continues through March 13.

Some Peoria high school athletic directors say blaming the area’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases on the return of high school sports may be premature.

“How the kids are contracting the virus is anyone's guess,” said Manual AD Tim Kenny. “Is it sports or not sports? I don't know if we know for sure.”

Brian Dunphy, Kenny’s counterpart at Peoria High, similarly said it’s unfair to assume high school athletes are driving the increase in infections.

“I think the perception that the people in the community are getting is that all these athletes are testing positive,” said Dunphy. “I really don't feel that's the case, and the numbers here don't show that at all.”

During Thursday’s weekly media briefing, Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson said younger people are driving the region’s recent surge and contact tracing indicates many cases are linked to high-risk sports such as high school football, basketball, and volleyball.

“There’s lots of guidelines and principles around those high-risk sports, and (it’s) just acknowledging the fact that when you take on these sports, you take on that full risk,” said Hendrickson. “It's going to be a decision between school boards and their ADs and those parents of individual students. But just really understand the full risk that you guys are putting forward when you are doing these sports.”

Dunphy said Friday he's not yet convinced there truly is a connection between the COVID spike and high school sports.

“My initial thought is I'm not sure that athletics can be blamed,” he said. “In fact, as I've said before, I think the safest kids to invite over to your house are athletes: They're getting temperature-checked and health-checked every day when they get to school; they're getting it again after school before practice starts.

“We have a dozen or more procedures in place, not only to check those athletes but to check the adults that are working with them.”

In an emailed response, District 150 said it monitors all athletics teams closely and works in conjunction with the health department “to ensure we provide every possible opportunity” for students to safely participate in extra-curricular activities.

“I have never seen a group of people that has worked so hard during this entire school year as the administrators, superintendents, and athletic directors to try to make sure the kids can do what they love and to be safe when they're doing it. They're going above and beyond,” said Peoria County Regional Superintendent of Schools Beth Crider, who is married to Dunphy.

“If there are things that they need to do, they're putting those things in place. Honestly, it is another space where kids are gathering, so it's just an opportunity for more exposure. But in my opinion, the system is working the way that it should (so) kids are safely as possible engaging in these activities.”

District 150 also said one positive test among medium and high-risk sports will shut down team activities and prompt a quarantine period for the players, and that is why Manual having to drop out of this weekend’s scheduled football game against Peoria High. But Kenny said he needs to see more of a pattern before attributing the Tri-County’s recent COVID spike to sports.

“We made it through the basketball season, which is a high-risk sport, without anyone testing positive, and they're tested every week – and that's the boys and girls,” he said. “But now we've had a couple of cases there. I'm just hesitant to say it's because of the sports, but I won't dispute the professionals.”

Farmington’s varsity football program also suspended activity for two weeks because of COVID positives. Farmers coach Toby Vallas said he takes COVID-19 very seriously, but feels athletics are being unfairly scapegoated.

“Everybody wants to pin this on high-risk sports. The benefits socially and emotionally for our kids, with their sport or their activity – I don't care if it's the band, or my daughter loves dance; I don't care what it is – those kids need this,” said Vallas. “I feel like we haven't thought about our kids, and I don’t believe it’s coming from the high-risk sports.”

After losing Manual as this weekend’s football opponent, Dunphy scrambled to fill the Lions’ void. Ultimately, he arranged a Saturday afternoon contest with East St. Louis that required some extra work: making the Flyers a temporary football-only Big Twelve Conference member to meet IHSA scheduling guidelines.

“We couldn't play teams out of our (COVID) region and we couldn't play teams out of our conference,” he said. “So the only solution was either finding someone in our region – there was no one – or finding an open game in our conference. … But we didn't have that option.

“So we did find an opponent the same size as us, awesome competition. The Big Twelve graciously offered (membership to) East St. Louis Senior, who was invited as a new member of the Big Twelve.”

Crider said mitigation efforts and other safety precautions help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 through sports, but the threat cannot be completely eliminated.

“Anytime that you're going to engage in an activity where you are going to be gathering people together with COVID-19, it comes with risk,” she said. “Also, this is part of being in school; this is part of the mental health of our students. This is part of providing them with the opportunities they need to be a well-rounded student. So we have to consider all of those factors.”

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Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.