Without a statewide strategy for schools and sports, everyone is on their own

August 31, 2020 12:20 am

LANCASTER, OH – AUGUST 18: Football players from Lancaster High School line up to start running drills during football practice on August 18, 2020 in Lancaster, Ohio. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

Ohio has entered a new strange phase of the coronavirus pandemic. To borrow from a circulating meme, Ohio is where “college students go to school but don’t play sports, and high school students play sports but don’t go to school.”

Gov. Mike DeWine in recent weeks gave the green light for a fall season of scholastic sports. Or make that two seasons maybe. A number of school districts, particularly those in and around big cities, pulled the plug on some or all of their fall sports, and moved them to the spring.

DeWine’s announcement allowing all youth sports to go forward was not unexpected. Yet the whole business is disconcerting. The United States is still in the middle one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Many schools had to call off in-person classes. The Big Ten cancelled fall sports. 

Already, outbreaks at universities have triggered mass quarantines and derailed plans for in-person classes. Public health officials in several large Ohio counties advised K-12 schools to suspend in-person classes and extracurricular activities, only to be widely ignored. Schools are all over the map, some canceling and then backpedaling under public pressure. These developments, taken as a whole, do not instill confidence.

DeWine has earned overwhelming public support during the pandemic. As of a few weeks ago, he led all U.S. governors with the highest approval rating. But he passed the buck on sports, leaving it up to individual school districts to figure it out. That probably keeps him in good graces with many voters. Time will tell whether he’s right or wrong.

When the Big Ten and Pac-12 cancelled fall football, an NCAA medical adviser said bluntly,: “The problem is, we have way too much virus, way too much transmission to be thinking about things like football.”

So, why is it too dangerous for Ohio State but okay for Ohio school kids?

Many other states are playing it safe. As of last week, 16 states had moved high school football seasons to spring. While DeWine would not go there, during his address on fall sports he turned the floor over to a sports medicine expert who raised serious concerns.

DeWine asked Dr. James Borchers, a sports medicine specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, if Borchers would allow his child to play contact sports this fall.

Borchers said he would not if local infection rates were high, and with current lack of testing of kids who may be exposed to COVID-19. 

“You have to take into account what is going on in your local community, what’s going on in your more extended community,” he said.

Borchers didn’t elaborate. But clearly community infection rates are not under control, as he suggested they should be to play safely. Borchers also warned about a heart complication in some athletes who become infected. 

The governor and many other adults in charge decided to move ahead anyway. The Ohio High School Athletic Association, which regulates scholastic sports, was silent about fall sports for months while schools, coaches and players waited for guidance.

In early July, the organization abruptly sacked its  popular executive director, Jerry Snodgrass. Then on July 31 — the day before official scholastic sports practices were scheduled to begin — OHSAA finally spoke about the fall season, saying sports would move forward.

You can’t help but wonder if firing Snodgrass had something to do with disagreement over the path forward. Some people have noted the organization’s shaky finances and need for revenue. The OHSAA took a big hit, to the tune of $2 million, when state tournaments were cancelled last spring, according to news reports. 

I reached out to Snodgrass to get his take the OHSAA’s decision-making around COVID-19. He politely declined to comment on advice of his lawyer. The OHSAA issued only a vague statement about a change in leadership when the board fired Snodgrass.

COVID-19 cases in recent weeks have emerged on school practice fields, leading to some team quarantines across the country. In Summit County, health authorities identified 16 school sports teams, marching bands and cheerleading squads with COVID cases.

A shortened, six-game high school football season is in disarray before it starts, with coaches scrambling to find opponents. 

Without a statewide strategy, it’s every man for himself. 

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Harlan Spector
Harlan Spector

Harlan Spector is a Northeast Ohio writer focused on health care and other topics. He has decades of journalism experience as a former Cleveland Plain Dealer editor and enterprise reporter who covered health and medicine, government, social services, education and other areas. Follow Harlan on Twitter @harspector.