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US High school football is the new battleground of COVID-19 school reopenings

21:10  12 october  2020
21:10  12 october  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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Myles Mooyoung was eager to start the fall football season at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago. The 17-year-old senior defensive back needed updated recordings of his plays to attract college scouts and vie for an athletic scholarship.

But by the start of school, it was clear that wasn't going to happen in Illinois. After Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state health department ordered high-risk school sports such as football pushed to spring because of COVID-19 concerns, Mooyoung and his family made a quick and unusual decision: Mooyoung moved four hours north to live with his father in Michigan, which is allowing interscholastic football competitions this fall.

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a group of baseball players standing on top of a grass covered field: Portland's head coach John Novara, left, talks with the team after defeating Lansing Catholic 21-7 on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, at Portland High School. © Nick King/Lansing State Journal Portland's head coach John Novara, left, talks with the team after defeating Lansing Catholic 21-7 on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, at Portland High School.

Instead of sitting out the season, he's playing for Wylie E. Groves High School in the Detroit suburbs. He had six tackles and two interceptions Oct. 2 to help his new school win 36-26; the team lost 35-28 Friday.

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Mooyoung is an elite athlete – and an example of the steps parents with resources will take to support their children's dreams. But his story is the latest flashpoint in the national debate about how schools should reopen in the middle of a pandemic: Is it safe to hold high school sports, regardless of whether students are in school? And if so, what modifications are families willing to accept?

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Across the country, some parents have waged protests and filed lawsuits to pressure politicians, health officials and state sports associations to resume competitive fall sports, particularly football. The efforts' leaders are many of the same parents who have battled schools' decisions to hold classes online.

"Sports and school are intertwined," said David Ruggles, a father of five in suburban Chicago. He brought a lawsuit this month against the Illinois High School Association in the hopes of restarting football. "Who are we helping by keeping sports closed?"

According to the Illinois Department of Health: a lot of people.

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"There is higher risk of COVID-19 infection associated with high contact sports," said Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In states where sports such as football are underway, Arnold said, COVID-19 positivity rates are double what they are in Illinois, according to infection information from those states. She pointed to cities like St. Louis, Dallas, and Danbury, Connecticut, where coronavirus infections and the death of a young coach have been traced back to youth sports.

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Even in Michigan where Mooyoung is competing, some high schools have had to cancel football games and quarantine entire teams recently because of COVID-19 infections and exposure.

Nevertheless, parents and students in Illinois and around the country have protested postponing football and other fall sports until spring. They've used the social media hashtag #LetUsPlay to stress the mental and physical benefits of interscholastic competition, particularly since many students returned to online learning this fall instead of fully in-person classes this fall.

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But even for districts allowing fall sports to proceed as normal, it hasn't always been easy. Some parents have resisted schools' safety measures, like mask mandates in the stands. That's caused some districts to beef up security or stop games – or in one instance, tase a parent for trespassing.

"It's messy," said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which represents the 51 associations running activities at about 20,000 high schools nationwide.

The decisions to play or postpone sports can look different even between neighboring school districts, she said.

"People desperately miss activities. They want their kids back in school," Niehoff said. "But the reality is different from place to place."

a couple of people that are standing in the grass: Lakeview cheerleaders Kayla Shupp, Alaya Marshall and Minate Lussier pump up the crowd on Friday, Oct. 2, at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, Mich. Lakeview defeated Kalamazoo Central 28-12. © Alyssa Keown | The Battle Creek Enquirer Lakeview cheerleaders Kayla Shupp, Alaya Marshall and Minate Lussier pump up the crowd on Friday, Oct. 2, at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, Mich. Lakeview defeated Kalamazoo Central 28-12.

Tensions flare over fall football

Given football's esteemed place in American culture, it's no surprise families and fans have fought hard for its return, even in places where COVID-19 infections have been high.

In all, 31 states have modified fall sports competitions because of the pandemic, according to the national federation. Fourteen states are carrying on as normal. In Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon, Nevada, California and Washington, D.C., all fall competitions have been postponed until late winter or spring.

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, announced in mid-August he would allow fall youth sports to proceed, provided all athletes followed strict safety protocols.

But some of Ohio's urban districts, such as Columbus and Cincinnati, started their seasons later due to high infection rates in their areas. Those districts also started the year with all students learning remotely. Parents and athletes in Cincinnati protested that pause, saying low-income students especially relied on sports to give them focus and a safe place to go after school.

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In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said low- and moderate-risk sports such as soccer, field hockey and cross country could practice and play, but high-risk sports such as football could only practice – not compete – because of concerns about spreading the virus.

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The New York State Public High School Athletic Association then announced it would push fall football to spring, along with volleyball and cheerleading.

Then in late September, a parent of a high school senior quarterback in Niagara filed a class-action lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court. Postponing the season, the lawsuit said, amounted to discrimination against senior football players who would not have the same chance to be scouted for scholarships as their peers allowed to play in other states.

In Illinois, Ruggles, the suburban Chicago parent, tried a slightly different tactic. He filed a lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association, on the grounds that it didn't follow its bylaws in adjusting the season.

A judge ruled against the parents, which means the Illinois COVID-19 sports guidance still stands: Students can practice and compete in lower-risk sports this fall, such as golf, cross country and tennis. Students are prohibited from competing in medium-risk sports like soccer and volleyball, and high-risk sports such as football.

"The heart of this is the restrictions we have from our governor," said Craig Anderson, executive director of the IHSA.

Now the Illinois parents and students have doubled down on in-person protests. Student-athletes marched to the governor's house in Chicago last weekend and continued their protests this week.

Ruggles said sports provide a recreational and social outlet for children, which is important for their mental health. He said Illinois' rates of positive COVID-19 cases are not much different than Indiana, a state where fall football has resumed.

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"When kids get the virus, they don't get that sick," Ruggles said. "They're out and about anyway. The flip side if they don't play is anxiety and depression."

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Is it safe to play sports?

Medical and education experts are split on what's best for students.

The physical and mental benefits of sports are paramount for students' development, especially after being cooped up for months because of the pandemic, said Dr. David M. Smith, director of youth sports medicine at the University of Kansas Health System.

Mask requirements and other safety measures, such as social distancing, washing and sanitizing your hands, playing outside and limiting shared sports equipment can lower the risk of spreading infection, he said.

"I think we’re safer on the field, honestly," Smith said. "Youth are still going to get together with their friends," even if practices and games are canceled.

South Putnam High School players run routes during an afternoon football practice at South Putnam High School in Greencastle, Ind., on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. © Colin Boyle/IndyStar South Putnam High School players run routes during an afternoon football practice at South Putnam High School in Greencastle, Ind., on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says administrators of youth sports organizations should consult with state and local health officials to determine if practices and games can be held. The CDC's considerations for youth sports include safety measures such as social distancing and the limited sharing of sports equipment to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, some education experts are questioning the push to resume athletics.

“If it's too dangerous to hold classes in person, including physical education, and if other meaningful extracurricular activities such as theater and band have been put on pause, why should sports resume?" asked Christine Ashby, a Syracuse University education professor.

In central New York, Ashby said, some districts are playing competitive fall sports allowed by the state, while others have postponed them.

The cancellations fall hardest on lower-income students. Their districts face greater financial and logistical challenges to implementing new safety measures, Ashby said.

Schools' next struggle: What to do with misbehaving fans

Some districts hosting fall competitions have struggled to enforce safety restrictions with fans, such as mask mandates.

In Ohio, a mother who refused to wear a mask and then refused to leave a middle school football game was tased when she resisted the school resource officer. The mother said she didn't wear a mask because she had asthma.

In Idaho, anti-government activist Ammon Bundy recently tried to attend a high school football game but refused to wear a mask. When he also refused to leave the vicinity of the field, officials reportedly shut down the football game. The school district later said the game was ended early because of a threat called into the school.

In Nebraska, where fall sports have resumed competitions, one district superintendent has faced backlash for restricting fans to only those rooting for the home team.

Tawana Grover, the superintendent of Grand Island Public Schools, said she and the school board made the move to limit crowds, as the region had been a coronavirus hotspot in the spring.

But when some parents started protesting on social media and encouraging visiting teams' fans to ignore the safety protocols, Grover announced the district would beef up security at games and order anyone without a ticket to leave.

"Every district has to think about what's best and safest for them," Grover said.

Grover said she and the board are weighing whether to allow visiting team fans for the last home game on Oct. 16.

After that, Grand Island will have to decide how to handle fans in an even more concerning environment: indoors, when basketball season starts.

Contributing: Steven Blackledge, The Columbus Dispatch; Scott Springer, The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: High school football is the new battleground of COVID-19 school reopenings

College football odds, picks, predictions for Week 8, 2020: Proven model backing Alabama, Iowa State .
SportsLine's advanced computer model simulated every Week 8 college football game 10,000 times. Over the past four-plus years, the proprietary computer model has generated a stunning profit of over $4,100 for $100 players on its top-rated college football picks against the spread. It is a sizzling 25-13 on top-rated picks through seven weeks of the 2020 college football season, returning over $700 in profit already. Anybody who has followed it is way up. Now, it has turned its attention to the latest college football odds for Week 8 from William Hill and locked in picks for every FBS matchup.

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