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Despite Spike In Coronavirus Cases, Winter Sports Set To Start

Lift for Life Academy's Brooke Johnson reacts after scoring a point in a high school girls' volleyball game Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. It was Lift for Life's first home sporting event in its 18-year history.
File photo | Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Lift for Life Academy's Brooke Johnson reacts after scoring a point in a high school girls volleyball game in September 2018. Fall sports like volleyball are hosting state championships this week, while winter sports begin.

For many St. Louis schools, both public and private, today marks the first day of practice for winter sports.

But the kickoff falls in the shadow of a steep uptick in coronavirus cases across the region and as doctors plead with residents to wear masks and socially distance.

For now, winter sports will go ahead in Missouri.

“We will be continuing to talk with our board of directors to see if there are any changes or adjustments that need to be made, but as of right now we’re still moving forward as scheduled,” said Jason West, communications director for the Missouri High School Athletic Association.

West said all the same procedures MHSAA laid out for fall sports, like required masks before and after competitions, limited spectators and student symptom screenings, will continue. Football, volleyball, softball and cross-country were able to hold full seasons and even state championships.

“The fact that we’re still playing games and not having major issues, I think is a big accomplishment for our members,” West said.

Yet sports like football and cross-country benefit from outdoor settings with more space. Winter brings exclusively indoor sports like swimming, basketball and wrestling.

Parkway School District’s Athletic Director Mike Roth said that has led his district to dramatically change how it schedules games and matches.

“In years past we might have anywhere from three basketball games a night, sometimes even six. We might have two freshman games, two JV and two varsity games,” Roth said. “Now at the very most we’ll have three games at a site using two gyms.”

And those games will run on different schedules. Gone are Friday night doubleheaders in packed gyms. Instead of back-to-back contests, freshman teams will square off in one gym at 4:30 p.m. with a JV match in the other at the same time. Then the schools will let the gyms fully clear for two hours before letting parents and athletes back in for varsity contests later in the evening.

For games, mask wearing for spectators will be required, attendance limited and hand sanitizer widely available.

St. Louis’ public health department has yet to release guidelines for winter athletics, like it did in the fall when youth sports were just beginning to start up again. But Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said last Friday that going inside will always increase risks.

“Any time you get groups of people together inside an enclosed space, that includes spectators, athletes, anything like that, you’re always going to increase the probability of transmission occurring,” Garza said. “Now, you layer onto that the amount of virus we have circulating out in the community, which means you’re even increasing more the probability of transmission.”

The risk of letting kids participate in sports is not lost on parents, said Josh Smith, athletic director at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School.

“There’s been a slight decline,” said Smith, when asked about overall participation in sports at MICDS during the fall. “As athletics progress there’s nothing that’s 100% safe. It’s a hard decision for families,” he said, adding that as a parent of a student athlete himself, he understands.

For parents there’s a sincere desire to get kids away from looking at a computer screen all day, and at the same time, a need to keep them safe.

But those dual wants, Mike Roth at Parkway said, have led to a large effort by parents and students to follow regulations and keep sports going. He said memories from March of having seasons snatched away are still fresh.

“The cooperation we’re seeing from the student athletes, from the parents, has been tremendous,” he said. “They want to take this opportunity and run with this opportunity, and hopefully it lasts a long time, ‘cause they realize it can be taken from them, from us, at any given time.”

Follow Becca on Twitter: @itsreallyflick

Becca is an intern with St. Louis Public Radio.