In one of the final news conferences of 2020, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott made an announcement that took many local education officials by surprise: The winter high school sports season would begin after all.
For now, student-athletes who play indoors can only practice their sports, are required to stay distanced from other players and must be masked. No spectators are allowed. In basketball, for example, that means dribbling and shooting drills but no scrimmages.
Games between teams still aren’t permitted. But that could change if state officials determine health conditions are good enough.
“The gains we’ve made are fragile. And we’ll only hold them if we’re smart,” Scott said on Dec. 22.
Across the country, families and state officials alike are agonizing over whether to allow sports to move indoors this winter. Some have canceled seasons, while others, like Texas, are barreling ahead with few precautions, much to the consternation of medical experts.
The Vermont Principals Association oversees interscholastic sports, and Jay Nichols, the VPA’s executive director, said the organization has received an onslaught of calls and emails on the subject.
“Leading up to the governor’s announcement … we were getting dozens of emails every single day. Phone calls, sometimes letters in the mail, on both sides of the issue,” he said.
Athletics are critical to the mental health of many students, and for some it’s a ticket to college. But many of the most useful mitigation measures used to control the spread of the virus — limiting contacts, distancing and staying outdoors — are impossible with certain sports and particularly during interscholastic competition.
“There is no playbook for this,” said Ben Lee, an associate professor in the pediatrics department at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. “There’s no definite answer for what the right thing to do is.”
Like many pediatricians, Lee, an infectious disease specialist who has modeled the impact of school reopenings on COVID-19, has been bullish on the importance of in-person learning. And Lee reiterated that there are non-trivial benefits to sports, both for mental health and physical well-being.
But Lee, who sits on the sports committee advising the Scott administration on schools in the pandemic, says he’s generally “much more nervous” about resuming winter sports than he was about fall sports, in particular hockey and basketball.
“The nature of those activities involve a lot of people breathing heavily near one another in an enclosed indoor space,” he said.
On top of that, Lee noted, health conditions in Vermont have substantially deteriorated since the summer and fall, and the state is averaging more than 100 cases a day.
Now or never
The verdict is out on whether the holidays will result in a new surge of the virus. But if the current plateau holds, Lee says it’s now or never for Vermont to make winter sports happen in some form this year.
Still, schools will have to be hyper-cautious about adhering to mitigation measures, he said, and the state will have to keep a close eye on the wider health impact.
“Our margin for error is razor thin,” he said.
Tim Lahey, an infectious disease physician and director of clinical ethics at the University of Vermont Medical Center, expressed a similar ambivalence.
“I’d say it’s at the edge of my comfort zone,” he said.
Lahey said he would discourage his own kids from participating. Even if health conditions remain stable, he said he wasn’t ready to say that other families, who may have different risk tolerance, couldn’t allow their own kids to play.
“I think that it’s one of the activities that would be first to go if the numbers got out of control. Because it absolutely risks transmission,” he said.
And Lahey also thinks it would be useful if decision-makers could reframe the discussion away from the things people aren’t allowed to do and toward what schools and the state could do to enable safer alternatives.
Not the right time
That’s an approach that Anne Sosin, program director at the Dartmouth Center for Global Health Equity, certainly endorses. For some time, Sosin has been advocating for officials and communities to think seriously about how to create more outdoor opportunities for fun and socialization that are relatively COVID-safe.
Sosin strongly believes that public health measures won’t be sustainable if people aren’t given some opportunity to gather and play. But the governor’s announcement regarding indoor sports, she said, was the first time since the pandemic began that she found herself disagreeing with the administration’s approach.
“I think that the decision to allow indoor sports represents a notable exception to what have otherwise been the country’s most coherent and effective public health measures,” she said.
Vermont is at “yet another inflection point,” she said. And while case counts appear tenuously level, she said that could change at any point, particularly as the full impact of the holidays becomes apparent.
“I don’t see this as the time to increase or to take risks in this way,” she said.
An outbreak that began at a Montpelier ice rink was ultimately linked to more than 100 COVID-19 cases and may very well have helped usher in Vermont’s second wave of the coronavirus. But state officials have been emphatic that transmission appears to have taken place off the ice, during things like carpooling and after-game events.
There have been COVID-19 clusters associated with hockey in Massachusetts, according Ben Linas, an associate professor in infectious diseases at Boston University School of Medicine and of epidemiology at the BU School of Public Health. But there, too, it’s difficult to say for sure if transmission occurred during games or off-ice.
Still, Linas said someone can’t credibly argue that indoor sports won’t substantially increase risk.
“If you’re bringing these kids together to do indoor sports during an epidemic, there will be some cases of COVID that would not have existed had you not done this,” he said. “On the flip side, you have to just ask: ‘Well, what is the role of athletics in our life?’ ”
Linas, too, expressed a great deal of uncertainty about what the right call is and said he’s struggled with it as a parent.
“No one knows the answer. All of us have variously well-informed ideas about what the answer probably is,” he said.
He’d kept his own daughter away from cheerleading practice for some time before relenting, deciding it was too important to her well-being. But if it was up to him, he said he’d draw the line at interscholastic games.
“We should be having practices — in masks — at our school, doing what we can to mitigate and being careful. But we’re not going to send our kids out there to mix with other schools, which could potentially lead to wide-scale transmission at the state level,” he said.
VPA membership divided
That’s a compromise Peter Langella, a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, said he could personally live with. The educator started an online petition calling on the governor to cancel the winter sports season, but he says allowing athletes to practice — and not compete — seems like a reasonable balance.
“We are working unbelievably hard to implement these safety protocols to keep this in-person hybrid learning happening, at great expense to the well-being of everybody. And I just don’t know why we would risk that with interscholastic sports,” said Langella, who noted he’d played hockey himself as a high school and college athlete.
It isn’t the VPA’s call whether the winter sports season is allowed to progress to interscholastic games and the like. That’s up to the governor and his administration.
But Nichols said his own membership is divided. Many think that the governor has caved to political pressure and that the risk is too high. Others think that students desperately need athletics and that the tradeoff is worth it, even indoors.
“I think the majority of principals think that we need to find more extracurricular opportunities for kids to turn to in this pandemic, as safely as we can. But what that looks like differs all over the place,” he said.