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Dave Nichols: To play or not to play in face of pandemic

All across the country, high school administrators are faced with a difficult decision – whether to allow students some sense of normalcy and return to athletic competition, while trying to decide whether it’s safe to conduct in-person instruction in the classrooms, as the pandemic continues to rage on.

It’s a tough decision, complicated when there’s no unilateral decision at the national or state level.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association decided a few weeks ago – in conjunction with Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase Safe Start Washington plan – to opt against playing most fall sports and put them off until the spring. Some low-contact sports were allowed to play optional seasons in the fall, but most leagues across the state are taking the cautious approach and will wait until the newly created “Season 3” starting first of March.

Across the border in Idaho, however, there has been no unilateral decision from the Idaho High School Activates Association. Rather, following that state’s board of education, the IHSAA has left it up to individual school districts to decide what’s best for their athletes and communities.

The IHSSA Board of Directors met last Wednesday and decided to move forward, starting practices for the fall sports season last Monday, with modified regular seasons commencing as soon as next week.

In Utah, the football season kicked off Thursday, with fans in the stands no less, but not before one prominent team was shut down due to an outbreak of COVID-19 within the team.

With all that as background, a local Idaho school district has taken a responsible – though disappointing to many – approach and decided to play intramural sports this fall instead of league games.

Late Thursday – too late to get anything but a blurb into the paper – the Moscow School District issued a statement saying its high school and middle school programs would conduct intramurals this fall, eschewing the complications of competitive sports in a pandemic.

The statement cited “the safety of our students, staff and community” as its first priority. As it should.

“In our discussions, the largest concern was our inability to have control of the situation as we traveled to other communities, as well as when visitors attended our activities,” it said.

In the face of a national public health crisis, the rising positive case numbers in the region and across the country, and the contentious political atmosphere surrounding the handling of the pandemic – nationally and locally – the decision by the Moscow School District was bold and courageous, and could not have been made easily or cavalierly.

I think it was the correct one.

Almost everywhere athletes have gathered – pro, college, high school or community – outbreaks have happened. In Coeur d’Alene this summer, Legion baseball was shut down several times after the season started due to positive COVID-19 tests for athletes, coaches or parents.

Thankfully, most have not become seriously sick.

But some have. Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez developed myocarditis – a serious heart illness – as a result of contracting COVID-19 and is out for the season.

Yes, the NBA and NHL have been successful thus far keeping COVID-19 out of their “bubbles.” But most college conferences – including the Pac-12, Big Sky and West Coast locally – have shut down due to the many complications of the coronavirus and the fear of athletes or coaches getting sick.

It’s one thing for professional athletes to take a calculated risk to participate in athletic contests during the midst of a pandemic. Even with all the medical advice and attention available, MLB hasn’t been able to keep significant outbreaks from happening – and both the league and players are complicit.

It’s another thing completely to allow unpaid student-athletes, sometimes with limited access to health care, to jeopardize their health and future in order to generate revenue for their schools.

Yes, the kids want to play. I’m sure there were a lot of disappointed teenagers in Moscow when they heard the news Friday morning. I know there were a lot of disappointed parents, coaches and administrators – I heard from a few of them.

And since Moscow plays in a league with the other larger North Idaho schools, it will create chaos to schedules that have been torn up and rewritten several times already. That couldn’t have been easy to explain to fellow league members.

But the bottom line here is the safety of the children during an uncontrolled pandemic. If the state isn’t willing to put its neck on the line and make the unilateral decision, then good for the Moscow School Board to step up to do the right thing for their kids.

Even though they were the first – maybe in the country under the circumstances – I have a feeling they won’t be the last. I just hope that it’s not because a kid gets sick.

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