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Coronavirus In Ohio: School Districts Taking Different Approaches For Fall Sports

High school football player during the national anthem.
Senior Airman Naomi Griego
U.S. Air Force photo

As Ohio schools approach the start of the academic year, administrators and students have been wondering what will happen to fall sports. Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Tuesday that the decision will be left up to individual districts, but so far reaction is mixed.

DeWine acknowledges that allowing sports in the fall means allowing opportunities for contact that could result in the further spread of COVID-19. But he also says sports provide tangible benefits to students and the community.

“Sports provides all the things that we know," DeWine said. "It brings discipline, order and structure in the lives of student-athletes, and it certainly brings joy to those athletes and to their families."

The Ohio Department of Health will release a public health order this week outlining guidance for schools to resume athletics, including contact sports, this fall. But even for those that choose to participate, the season will look different than in years past.

When considering his decision, DeWine consulted with Wexner Medical Center doctor Jim Borchers, who specializes in sports medicine. He says parents and districts alike need to assess how severely COVID-19 is spreading is in their respective communities.

“I think that every individual needs to look at what’s going on in their environment and kind of what their community looks like,” Borchers says. “If the infectability rate is high and we didn’t have the ability to test, I’d have some real reservations about letting my son play a contact sport.”

Chris Lucia coaches cross country at St. Michael’s School in Worthington. He gained about 10 cross country runners this season because of people switching over from contact sports.

“I will have more," Lucia says. "And that throws in just a wrench because you don’t really wanna be a monster team right now, because teams like, invitationals, the big ones are getting cancelled. A lot of them in replacement for smaller ones."

Lucia now has about 20 boys and 25 girls on his team. He predicts the pandemic will make the sport more competitive.

“But here some of the races will be basically your fastest 10, and that’s it,” Lucia says. “So it will drive more competition to get on that top 10, which competition brings out the best, but it will hold some people back of course that don’t get to race.”

Schools will have leeway in terms of what sort of parameters to set for sports practices and games, and testing won't be required by the state. DeWine notes that some schools are delaying seasons for contact sports like football, but that doing so won’t offer any future guarantees.

“No one can guess what the future’s gonna be. We don’t know, frankly, what the situation’s gonna be or how far into the season we’re gonna be able to get, or if we can get all the way into the season, we certainly hope right now,” DeWine says. “Nor can we predict if things will be better when it would come time to play these sports in the spring.”

Some districts, like Columbus City Schools, are starting the semester completely onlineand canceling fall sports as a result.

“We have noticed that a good number of our urban schools, our city schools have decided not to go back in-person, and they’ve also decided not to have fall sports,” DeWine says.

Twenty-three school districts have signed a petition to the Ohio High School Athletic Association asking contact sports to be delayed until spring. A delay would allow students equal opportunity to play safety, says Parma City School District superintendent Charles Smialek, whose district is leading the effort.

“We’re up against the reality that it’s going to be very difficult to have any season for our contact sports this fall, so we believe it behooves us to explore this move to the spring,” Smialek told ideastream. “The goal is to be able to have the same level of opportunity as we would normally offer, albeit in a safer way and at a non-traditional time.”

After the Big Ten Conference moved last week to suspend the fall sports season, possibly until spring, Some Ohio State University football fans joked that they'll start attending high school games instead to get their fix. But that won’t be possible unless they’re related to a high school athlete.

“We will not have spectators other than, other than family members or people very close to that particular child,” DeWine says. “We’ll leave that up to, of course, the school on how to do that.”

DeWine says limited spectators are allowed because it's important for student-athletes to have fans to cheer them on.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.