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DeKalb County Schools will let student athletes stay in the game as COVID-19 cases rise

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DeKalb County Schools will let student athletes stay in the game as COVID-19 cases rise

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DeKalb County School District Administration and Instructional Complex on Mtn. Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse


This story has been updated. 

By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — DeKalb County School District (DCSD) officials held a virtual town hall on Aug. 4 to answer questions from stakeholders about the athletic program’s protocols and procedures to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Questions included the availability of sanitizing products, temperature checks for athletes, and bus travel to games.

This week, Lakeside High School suspended football practice. City Schools of Decatur, which has only one high school, suspended all athletics through Sept. 25.

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DeKalb County Schools Executive Director of Athletics James Jackson said DeKalb County athletic programs continue to follow guidelines of Georgia High School Association (GHSA). The county is strengthening the guidelines where needed, including bringing in nurses to conduct temperature checks at summer conditioning; requiring students to wear a face mask in the weight room; thoroughly cleaning with spray disinfectant weight rooms and locker rooms.

“We have been more restrictive [than GHSA],” Jackson said, citing GHSA guidelines to keep pods small for practice. “We stayed with 20 kids to a pod. It was very tough on our coaches because they felt like they were behind. We would rather be cautious for the safety of student-athletes and coaches … We are in a pandemic and we must treat this as a pandemic. We don’t dictate to the virus. The virus dictates to us.”

Jackson said one of the biggest issues high schools face is what students do off-campus.

“We have no control over those kids when they’re away from us. We have great practices and processes in place at the schools and [sports] practices, but when they leave us, we don’t know,” he said. “Because unlike colleges and pros, where they test every day or every other day, we can’t test our kids. We have to trust parents and kids to do the right thing.”

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said DCSD is supporting coaches by “making sure they have everything they need to be educated about this COVID-19 pandemic, and have all of the necessary resources and supports on an ongoing basis.”

To date, Georgia has 197,948 confirmed cases and 3,921 deaths. DeKalb County has 12,760 confirmed cases and 229 deaths.

DeKalb County ranks as one of the top five counties in Georgia for COVID-19 cases. According to the DeKalb County Board of Health, the top five metro school districts in Atlanta – Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb, and Hall — have the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in Georgia.

Superintendent Watson-Harris, who recently moved from New York during the worst of the pandemic she knows sports play a huge role in the lives of students and families. She said athletics is critical to the school community, with upwards of 200 athletic scholarships awarded to students each year.

“More than ever, it appears that students need the physical exercise. Students also learn through sports how to work together as a team. I know that DeKalb has built a strong sports program,” she said, noting 15 sports are played in schools across the county. “While we recognize the importance of our sports programs in our district, again we have to make sure we are being responsible and putting the safety of our students and our staff first.”

Dr. Vasanne Tinsley, deputy superintendent of student support and intervention, said DCSD collaborates with DeKalb County Board of Health to follow guidelines, keep track of changing dynamics in the community, and make decisions to keep students, staff, and families safe.

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Dr. Sandra Ford, district director of the DeKalb Board of Health, and Dr. Quentin Fretwell, retired director of DCSD Department of Safe Schools and Student Relations, also gave presentations.

Dr. Ford said younger people are contracting COVID-19 and school-age children are at an increased risk. Because school-age children have “robust immune systems,” she is more concerned with the population surrounding students like faculty, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, and custodians.

“When we talk about managing a disease it cannot just be the index case, it has to be all the other individuals that are exposed to that index case,” said Dr. Ford, who is a board-certified pediatrician.

Ford said DeKalb County has other vulnerable populations due to its breadth of ethnic communities, languages spoken, and food deserts. She stressed that as fall approaches, flu shots are imperative.

Dr. Fretwell monitors COVID-19 data on a national, state, and local level for DCSD. He reported statistics provided by Georgia Department of Public Health by age:

– Age 1 to 4 years old: 2,200 confirmed cases to date. No deaths. 43 hospitalizations.

– Age 5 to 9 years old: 3,063 confirmed cases to date. No deaths. 24 hospitalizations.

– Age 10 to 17 years old: 10,106 confirmed cases to date. 1 death. 149 hospitalizations.

– Age 18 to 29 years old (valid because some high schoolers are over 17): 47,961 confirmed cases. 28 deaths. 1278 hospitalizations.

“We continue to follow the trends, and follow the data,” he said.

The message was clear from all panelists: To prevent the spread of COVID-19, wear a mask properly, wash your hands frequently, and practice social distancing.

Clarification: Following the publication of this story, Dr. Ford amended her remarks about the counties with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. This story has been updated to reflect her revised statement. 

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