Karissa L. Niehoff: Halting high school sports due to COVID hurts students — here’s what we should do

In some cases, the opportunity to play sports is the chief motivator for students to attend classes, graduate, obtain a job and begin life on their own

When high school sports were shut down in mid-March — along so much else due to the coronavirus pandemic — we never imagined we would still be trying to restart these programs as 2021 approaches. Unfortunately, this is the case in much of our country.

Even in those areas where fall sports were conducted and winter programs have commenced, the recent spikes in COVID-19 cases from coast to coast have created challenges to keep programs afloat.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) — the national leader and advocate for high school athletics and performing arts programs, where I serve as executive director — and its 51 member state associations have been working throughout the year to restore and retain high school sports and performing arts for the 12 million student participants.

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As leaders of our state high school associations have worked with government, education and health leaders on a safe return of sports and other activities, some have questioned why those attempts are being made as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. We believe that reasoning differs among the various levels of sports in the United States.

Some people believe that finances have driven decisions to keep sports afloat. While that may be the case for other levels of sports, that assessment of education-based sports and performing arts in our nation’s high schools is not accurate. The assertion — as it relates to high school sports — was driven by the belief that schools and state associations need to conduct football programs with fans in the stands to survive.

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Certainly, revenue from high school football is crucial for schools and state associations, but finances are not driving decisions to return to play. Instead, the overarching reason that high schools and state associations have worked with government, education and health leaders to offer these programs is that many students desperately need these activities.

The experience of playing on a high school team may be one of the only positive aspects in the lives of some students. The high school coach or director of a speech or music group may be the only positive role models these students have.  

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In some cases, the opportunity to play sports is the chief motivator for students to attend classes, graduate, obtain a job and begin life on their own. Regardless of whether the structure is the same as in the past, or if the same number of games are played or even if state championships occur, the continuance of these programs is crucial.

Throughout the fall in meetings with leaders of state associations, finances or concerns about state championships are not the primary topic.

In all cases, minimizing risks to students, coaches, officials and others is the No. 1 consideration in conducting high school sports.

In the seven states where students have been disengaged from activities for nine months — and in many other areas where sports have been put on hold due to recent rise in COVID-19 cases — the physical health concerns of the virus now must be weighed against the psychological health concerns of being separated from school and activities.   

In a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine after the March shutdown of schools, 68% of the state’s student-athletes reported symptoms of depression by May.

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Dr. Tim McGuine, a University of Wisconsin researcher who serves on the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, said about 65% of Wisconsin student-athletes reported anxiety symptoms due to COVID-19 closures.

This study confirms that involvement in high school sports and activities is absolutely vital to the social, emotional and mental health of many high school students. Because of the value of these programs — sports, speech, music, theater — to the more than 12 million high school participants, we continue to remain hopeful, working with government and health leaders, and looking for any opportunities for students to connect through high school activity programs.

While these programs have to be conducted differently during the pandemic — with social distancing, masks and enhanced hygiene precautions — they are just as important as the classroom work. Sports and other activity programs bring people together. Everyone on the team is accepted. Everyone on the team is integral to its success. 

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In high school sports, no team member is less significant than another. All members of the team work together. They shed tears together, they heal together, and they laugh and celebrate together.

We understand and support that health concerns related to COVID-19 must come first, but every opportunity possible for high school students to engage in sports and performing arts should remain on the table.