Iowa became the first state in the nation to restart high school sports amid the pandemic, allowing baseball and softball high school teams to resume their summer seasons in early June. It was believed to be the first return of organized sports in the country, following many professional and school leagues’ shut-downs. But now over 48 teams and 40 Iowa schools have been disrupted by COVID-19 complications, a local educator finds.
Danville special education teacher Laura Blanchard in late June began to plot on Google Maps which of Iowa’s high school teams had to alter their seasons due to exposure or positive cases of coronavirus, finding that around 7.3% of teams had had some sort of COVID disruption.
As the only U.S. state to play school-sanctioned summer sports, Iowa’s summer season could foreshadow what the challenges of re-opening schools in the fall might look like, educators say.
School advocates say the state’s insufficient back-to-school guidelines mirror the guidance offered by the state’s Department of Education on regulations and standards for the current athletic season.
“What’s school going to look like? Nobody knows … So this is a little bit of a looking glass. A crystal ball of what is [school] going to look like, how are other schools handling things, and what do these disruptions look like,” said Blanchard, a self-described data-geek who in 2018 ran for Des Moines County supervisor.
After Reynolds announced in May that summer athletic seasons could start in June for high school baseball and softball following a two-month activity suspension due to COVID-19, Iowa’s Department of Education did put out guidance for summer sports.
Randy Richardson, a former teacher and Iowa State Education Association director, said the Department of Education’s summer athletic guidelines aren’t stringent enough.
“I just kind of knew that you weren’t going to keep the schools’ teams functioning because of how kids behave,” Richardson said. “I think it’s a good indication of what’s going to happen. You’re going to constantly have these schools that are starting, stopping, starting stopping.”
But decisions on whether a team implements these guidelines, including regulations on halting or ceasing a season when there is exposure or confirmed COVID cases on a team is up to individual school districts and their public health department.
“Some of these counties are requiring that the person who tests positive goes home for 14 days and everyone else can continue. Some are saying everybody is suspended for two weeks, which is what it should be. My main concern is that they’re not all playing by the same rules,” said Iowa Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids.
On the map, southern Iowa has seen little disruption in their schools’ seasons. Western Iowa and places with higher population density like the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids areas have been impacted more.
“The rules aren’t being applied equitably based upon what county you happen to be in and where your school district is,” said Richardson, who is also a former baseball player and coach. “Sometimes you have coaches who place winning above maybe how the rules are applied.”
“I know of a couple of places where they had a player that was sick and they took that player and held him out of the game and took the rest of the team playing, or where they’ve made a decision jointly with parents where they would hold off testing the kid so that if it was positive, the rest of the team could play, the whole season wouldn’t be postponed,” he added. “Which is really risky. I think it’s crazy, but that’s what’s happening.”
Blanchard marks softball disruptions with red pins on her map, and baseball is coded with blue. School districts that have had both teams impacted are in purple.
She said that just a week ago there was about a 2:1 ratio of blue to red pins—a lot more baseball than there were softball disruptions. Now, the five or six teams that have had to end their season are softball. The only baseball team to cease summer play is Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, ranked in the top of the state.
“I think more than anything, I have more questions than answers from the map,” Blanchard said. “When Western Dubuque and Dowling got pulled off the field mid-game, I said to one of my colleagues, ‘How many times is this going to have to happen in the classrooms? That we’re going to get that same call from the school nurse. And then what?’”
Gov. Reynolds has not yet rolled out a comprehensive reopening plan for Iowa’s schools, to the dismay of some Iowans.
Over the next few weeks, high school baseball and softball tournaments that eventually will lead to the state tournament are set to begin.
“It’s going to be interesting how this all plays out because I wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of schools reporting cases really tick up,” Richardson said. “And because of this tournament, they’d just have to forfeit and I don’t know, it’s going to be interesting.”
by Isabella Murray
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