How creative solutions have kept high school sports going in the pandemic

Nora Brooks/Courtesy of Jennifer Brooks
Members of Ursuline Academy's varsity soccer team in St. Louis hold the plaque they won for taking the 2021 District Girls Class 2 soccer championship.

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The nation remains divided over how to respond to COVID-19. But in the high school sports arena, athletic directors have been finding some common ground with health authorities about how to move forward.

In the summer of 2020, for example, the St. Louis County Health Department moved to shut down high school athletics.

Why We Wrote This

Despite the often-raucous debates over pandemic protocols in schools, high school athletic directors have quietly been finding ways to keep students in the game.

Pressure to reverse that ruling came in several forms, including a Let Them Play group composed mostly of frustrated parents who rallied and demanded that lawmakers get kids back on the field.

Jen Brooks, the athletic director at Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, felt there was a better way than protests. So she formed a task force with several other athletic directors and asked to meet with the county health department.

Their question was simply, “How can we get kids to play?” Ms. Brooks says.

The answer came in a new set of protocols everyone could agree to.

It meant a severely reduced season and only two spectators per player in the stands. But as Katie Hingle, a mother of three, puts it, “In the end we were just ... grateful that we’re sitting there watching them play what they love to do.”

Darryl Nance was watching his local school board meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, via Zoom last year when it dawned on him just how challenging the days ahead would be.

“In back-to-back speakers,” he says, the school district was called “liars [for] exaggerating the impact of COVID” and liars for supposedly “underreporting the number of positive [cases] and the impact of COVID in our schools.” 

As the director of athletics for the district, he would have to navigate what was shaping up to be another culture war battlefront – whether to play high school sports during a pandemic.

Why We Wrote This

Despite the often-raucous debates over pandemic protocols in schools, high school athletic directors have quietly been finding ways to keep students in the game.

He was hardly alone in that struggle last year, as athletic directors (ADs) nationwide faced a similar dynamic.

A year on, the nation remains divided over how best to respond to COVID-19. But in the arena of high school sports at least, ADs are finding some common ground with those who disagree about how to take steps forward. The reasons vary by community, but the result is prompting healthy discussion.

One thing almost everyone agrees on: the need to get kids playing sports again. And that shared objective creates an environment for creative solutions.

In St. Louis, that means creating a task force to improve communication between schools and the health department. And in Greenville County, South Carolina, it’s encouraging kids to show more responsibility. Whatever shape it takes, people are finding ways to work together and find solutions that respect all.

Playing in St. Louis

In the summer of 2020, the St. Louis County Health Department moved to shut down high school athletics.

Pressure to reverse that ruling came in several forms, including a Let Them Play group composed mostly of frustrated parents who rallied and demanded that lawmakers get kids back on the field.

Nora Brooks/Courtesy of Jennifer Brooks
Jen Brooks, athletic director at Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, served on the task force that met weekly with a team at the St. Louis County Health Department to work out solutions that have kept students playing high school sports throughout the pandemic.

Jen Brooks, the athletic director at Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, felt there was a better way to move forward than protests. “While I can appreciate the Let Them Play parents and their efforts, they’re not in the thick of it and don’t know what an athletic program needs to run successfully,” she says.

So Ms. Brooks formed a task force with several other athletic directors in the St. Louis area and asked to meet with the county health department. One of those ADs was Brian Kessler of Parkway West High School, a large public school in Ballwin.

“We met with the health department to try and understand where they were coming from,” Mr. Kessler says. Rather than taking an adversarial approach, Ms. Brooks, Mr. Kessler, three other public school ADs, two doctors, and two representatives from the youth sports sector began talking about how they might move forward.

Then the question was simply, “How can we get kids to play?” Ms. Brooks says.

The answer came in a new set of protocols everyone could agree to.

Early on, things were hard. Katie Hingle, a teacher in the Kirkwood School District and mother of three, remembers her daughter’s freshman softball season at Ursuline Academy. “It was condensed to two weeks, then right into district playoffs … and the girls were only allowed two people [per player] in the stands.”

But she was just happy her daughter was playing. “In the end, we were just ... grateful that we’re sitting there watching them play what they love to do.”

The task force still meets weekly to monitor the situation. But “I feel like we’ve gotten to a point that we understand our goal and our mission,” Mr. Kessler says.

Students taking control

Greenville County, South Carolina, has also found its way back to high school sports, though in a very different way. As last year’s raucous school board meeting showed, the tensions between competing groups over COVID-19 data gave the district a difficult task.

Rather than choosing a side, Mr. Nance, the district AD, decided to focus on what he could control. So he’s encouraging his coaches to have the kids protect their seasons by self-policing, making sure no one takes any risks. He doesn’t tell them that’s the best way to avoid COVID-19; he says it’s the best way to preserve the season. “We are building on these things” because that’s “what our local control looks like,” he says.

Leigh Judy, an assistant football coach at Hillcrest High School in Greenville County, says his football players are stepping up and showing responsibility – and not just by following the county’s COVID-19 guidelines. “On summer mornings when everyone is sleeping in, these kids are running in the heat, lifting weights, getting yelled at, getting pushed,” Mr. Judy notes. Most people “don’t see the sacrifice that they’re pouring into the game … and their only payoff is to play on Friday night.”

Now Mr. Nance is reaching out to young athletes who got lost in the shuffle last year. A significant number of kids simply quit athletics, and Mr. Nance doesn’t know why.

“My biggest challenge this year is to find those kids,” he says. If there was a seventh grader who didn’t play, we’ve got to find out why they didn’t play. We have to find where they are and get them back.”

It’s a teachable moment for Mr. Nance. “I want to teach these kids how to problem solve, how to think,” he says. “I want to encourage them to be bold and make choices. Kids need to see that kind of leadership from us.”

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