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As schools switch to virtual learning, school sports continue with restrictions

COVID-19 Decatur Kirkwood and East Lake Metro ATL

As schools switch to virtual learning, school sports continue with restrictions

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FILE PHOTO: The Decatur High School football team practicing for the 2014 season. Photo provided by Chris Billingsley


Decatur, GA – City Schools of Decatur, DeKalb County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools are starting the school year with virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic but high school football teams will continue to hold in-person practices and are planning for a delayed season.

High School Football will start two weeks later, with the first games played on Sept. 4. The Georgia High School Association, which regulates athletics in the state, has published safety guidelines for schools to follow.

School officials and GHSA Executive Director Robin Hines defended the decision to move forward with sports even as parents are being asked to keep their children at home. Hines said that school districts have a choice about whether or not to participate in fall sports.

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“There’s always an inherent risk with anything,” Hines told Decaturish. “There’s an inherent risk with the flu. … You have to weigh the risk versus the benefits.”

So what are the benefits?

“I think students’ wellbeing both emotionally physically and mentally is a benefit of sport,” Hines said. “There’s no question about that.”

Hines thinks there will be fall sports this year, even as schools continue to keep students out of the classroom.

When asked what he would say to parents who are frustrated that sports are allowed to continue while students have to learn at home, Hines said, “I would share in their frustration.”

Decatur School Board Chair Lewis Jones said there’s a different level of risk with sports than there is with in-person learning. He said football and band practices are being allowed for now.

“These are outdoor activities. The safety concerns are different,” Jones said. “It’s safer to be outdoors. That creates a different set of considerations. It’s entirely voluntary activities as well, whether you’re in the football or band it’s made clear to everybody that it’s 100 percent voluntary. There’s a general sense that it’s important to get kids out of the house to the extent we can do it safely.”

So is there no way to make school safe for students, like having outdoor classrooms?

“We haven’t figured that out yet,” Jones said. “Outdoor classrooms, that’s complicated. I don’t know how that would work, it’s clearly a whole different set of logistical challenges.”

Decatur High School Athletics and Activities Director Rodney Thomas called it “a very fluid situation” and said metro Atlanta school systems are still evaluating things.

The DeKalb County School District said, for now, it is moving forward with the GHSA guidelines.

“The safety and well-being of our students and staff remain a top priority,” the school district said. “DeKalb County School District is continually monitoring COVID-19 case data in the metropolitan area and in the DeKalb area to determine next steps regarding fall athletic programming. We have been following guidelines from the Georgia High School Association (GHSA). Students have been and will be allowed to condition/drill/practice. For COVID-19 tracking purposes, students will practice in pods of 40 students. If the situation evolves, we may adjust guidelines, as GHSA guidance allows school districts to be more restrictive based on the needs of their counties. The school district will continue to monitor data provided by health partners regarding the number of positive cases by zip code in DeKalb County to determine the next steps. We will notify employees, parents and students if changes are made.”

DeKalb County School Board Chair Marshall Orson said there would “probably” be no fans at the games.

“We are all following, at a minimum, GHSA guidelines though, from the volume of emails I am getting, it appears we are stricter in our interpretation of those guidelines,” Orson said.

So are sports being given priority over academics?

“I don’t think they get priority, but schools have multiple facets to them,” Orson said. “And for many students, it’s a critical element of connection to schools. Managing what happens with a handful of players for limited periods of time, primarily outside, is different than bringing 500 students into a building for seven hours a day. Nevertheless, the extent of how much sports there will be is still an open question. Both my kids’ college fall soccer seasons have been canceled.”

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APS Director of Athletics Jasper Jewell told Fox 5 Atlanta that fall sports can continue even with virtual learning going on off the field.

Jewell is worried about the upcoming season, however.

“I’m worried about the safety, the welfare, the well-being of our student athletes, our coaches, our athletic directors and our school administrators,” Jewell told Fox 5.  “At the same time, GHSA is our governing body. We must continue to comply within the rules they’ve set forth. As it stands right now, we’re going to continue to prepare as though we’re going to have fall sports, but we’re going to proceed with extreme caution.”

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