Michigan high schools look to build on lessons as prep sports enter widespread testing for spring

With the state struggling to tamp down on the spread of coronavirus, high schools across Michigan are amidst the largest effort yet when it comes to testing for spring sports.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer recommended that all youth sports, including games and practices, be paused for two weeks during a press conference held on April 9. While some schools have abided by the request, many have chosen to follow the MHSAA’s lead and have moved forward with testing protocols and safety measures already in place.

Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director Mark Uyl recently told Bally Sports Detroit that the COVID-19 positivity rate for student-athletes in Michigan is under three percent and that he envisions completing their third athletic season of the academic school year without any major issues.

Spring sports athletes will be required to take an Abbott BinaxNOW Rapid Antigen Test once a week, which is a requirement handed down by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion out there that this is our testing program when that’s not the case,” said MHSAA Communications Director Geoff Kimmerly. “The MDHHS has always been the one mandating this protocol and they are the ones sending the tests to each county (independent school districts) and the schools get them from their local ISDs.

“When schools have questions or concerns about what the best practices are or what the most efficient way to enter results are, we have lines of communication set up with the health department to solve these issues. We basically act as a mediator between the health department and the school districts, so our involvement is much more minimal than most people think.”

More than 100 basketball teams in Michigan were forced into quarantines during the winter sports season but Kimmerly believes directly linking those exposures to sports is an inaccurate practice.

“I think the data continues to point to us having a lot of success in keeping people safe while playing school sports,” he said. “The numbers that the MDHHS put out recently that included both school sports and non-school-affiliated sports is a little misleading. Sports such as hockey that are really big in terms of travel teams aren’t going to be represented accurately in these reports.

“Even if all of that data was directly school-related, it would still add up to 98.5 percent of our winter sports athletes testing negative and having nothing to do with being infected. From our viewpoint, that is obviously very strong data to moving forward with a spring sports season with proper protocols in place.

“We’ve told people all along that the activity on the court, the activity on the field and the activity on the mat is not why the virus is being spread. We’ve heard about it being spread from social gatherings, we’ve heard plenty of anecdotes about activities happening within schools that include athletes but aren’t athletic related and I think this data backs that up.”

Kimmerly also pointed to the success of bordering states as a reason for optimism.

“We all see the case numbers growing, we see all these things happening, and we understand that a lot of people are getting sick, potentially at the high school age,” he said. “We keep track of those things and what’s announced, but we’ve said that if people do the right things within athletics, we can continue to play safely, and other states have done that without having to suspend or pause their seasons at any point. We believe Michigan will be able to do the same if the health and safety protocols are followed and administered correctly.”

The final spring sports championships are scheduled for June 18-19 for varsity baseball, softball and girls soccer, which is a finish line the MHSAA intends to cross.

“We’re not anticipating any sort of issues,” added Kimmerly. “We’re anticipating a smooth spring season. Obviously, all the schools are testing and many of them have tested in at least one sport already. The great majority know what process needs to be done with testing and how to conduct those tests. We’ve had teams that are already out playing spring sports, which is more than anyone got to do last spring.

“I think that’s what everybody’s really been looking forward to. We all wanted to finish the inside sports and get outside where we know that there would be less opportunity for infection. The only contact sports that we would have to concern ourselves with would be lacrosse and soccer, so it really should help lower those numbers even more this next season.

“Our hope is that we will roll into June with another championship season and be able to celebrate so many of those things that were missed a year ago.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Chief Medical Executive for the State of Michigan and Chief Deputy Director for Health in the MDHHS, views ongoing testing and vaccinations as additional reasons for a hopeful outlook.

“I’m optimistic about the spring sports season,” she told MLive. “I know that Michiganders know exactly what needs to happen to keep our cases down to flatten our curve. What’s also better now than what we saw a year ago is that we now have therapeutics, we now have vaccines, and we now have sufficient testing. Not only do we have vaccines, but there are many people who have been fully vaccinated which is really just incredible.

“We are hopeful that with this additional testing that we’ve made available, and many schools across the state are implementing and complying with this testing, that the spring season will be a successful one. We are also hopeful that with this two-week pause that the governor and I have had recommended, we will be able to get ahead of this current surge as our positive cases come down.”

According to Khaldun, the MDHHS has not set a hard ceiling on COVID-19 case numbers that would require a state-ordered pause on athletics.

“We’ve talked a lot about the particular metrics that we’re looking for in terms of percent positivity, case numbers, and hospitalizations, but this is not something where you necessarily can just say at a particular number, all of a sudden, the pandemic is over.

“Science tends to be something that also involves a lot of context with it. We continue to look at our numbers, but also very importantly, looking at the context, working with our local health departments, understanding the public health workforce, as far as what they’re saying, and also communicating daily with our hospital leaders.”

Unlike the MHSAA, the MDHHS believes there is a risk of spreading the virus by taking part in competitive sports when mask usage is not properly adhered to.

“I don’t think there’s a crystal ball, but what’s very clear is that we have seen several outbreaks such as 291 outbreaks amongst youth sports teams, both contact and non-contact, between January and March,” said Khaldun. “We know that activities related to sports, whether it’s on the field or off the field, have contributed to the cases that we’re seeing now.

“We do think that the evidence has shown not just in Michigan, but across the country, that when people wear masks and take a temporary pause on riskier activities, it would have an impact. I think that’s pretty clear from what we’ve learned about this virus over the past year.”

The relationship between the MDHHS and school districts continues to be a proactive one, which gives Khaldun the belief that end result will be another season of competition for student-athletes in Michigan.

‘We’ve been very pleased with how engaged our school systems and our sports teams have been,” she said. “Everyone wants everyone else to be safe and no one wants there to be more outbreaks. We also understand the importance of sports for children’s physical and mental health.

“What I’m excited about is that we really have had a lot of engagement. Just in the past week, we’ve had over 28,000 tests alone done on teachers, students and athletes and that’s exciting because testing is important to this process. We know that we’ll be able to identify any potential cases and prevent any potential outbreaks that might have happened from those cases but that’s really quite promising and I’m pleased with how it’s rolled out thus far.

“I’m certainly hopeful that the more that sports right now can get outside and the more they can socially distance and make sure people are complying with mask usage whenever people will be within six feet of each other, I think that’s really, really important. If everyone does their part, I don’t see any reason why the spring sports season couldn’t be completed by June.”

Jackson High baseball coach Chris Hoover, who also serves as the school’s varsity wrestling coach, believes the experience of going through the COVID-19 testing process will help make the spring sports season a relative breeze compared to previous installments.

“It’ll definitely be a cumbersome process with that many spring sports athletes, but it’s not an impossible undertaking,” said Hoover.

The biggest challenge in Hoover’s eyes is getting into the swing of things after more than 600 days away from the game in some instances.

“Some kids have played travel baseball or summer-league ball but for a lot of kids, this is their first time playing organized baseball in two years,” he said. “We have to hit the rewind button a little bit and start over. These kids aren’t going to have the same level of sharpness to their skill sets, so coaches have to be patient and we will probably have to spend a little more time on the basics than we have in the past, at least in the beginning portion of the season.

“I think keeping a bigger roster will also be a priority this season due to the fact that you have to plan for possible quarantine situations. Typically, baseball has been a cut sport because you want to keep your numbers low so that everybody can kind of maximize how much they play. I think that might change people’s philosophies because you need depth right now with the way sports are being conducted.”

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