Athletic directors consider new study, COVID-19 numbers in planning future of high school sports

MADISON, Wis. – As the pandemic keeps high school athletic directors on their toes planning how best to tackle a return to sports, a new University of Wisconsin – Madison study suggests that sports participation is not associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 in student athletes.

“It’s like having whiplash,” Middleton High School Athletic Director Jamie Sims said. “You’re able to sometimes move forward, then you have to halt.”

The loss of high school sports are yet another thing many in Dane County are missing during the pandemic – a big thing for those usually on the field as well as on the sidelines.

“Not just students — I miss sports,” said Jeremy Schlitz, athletic director at both the Madison Metropolitan School District and James Madison Memorial High School.

Of the Wisconsin high schools that have gotten back to sports, 207 responded to a survey as part of the study by the UW School of Medicine and Public Health in collaboration with the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The schools represented a total of about 30,000 student athletes.

Of the 209 athletes who know how they got the virus, one indicated it was because of sports participation. For the majority, 115, the source was household contact. For 85 students, the source was listed as community contact not at school.

The survey shows the total COVID-19 case rate (per 100,000 children) and incidence rates (cases per person daily) in student athletes are lower than what’s reported by the state’s Department of Health Services for 14 to 17-year-olds during the same time period. No specific sport has a statistically higher incidence rate than Wisconsin teens in that age group.

The study also showed that all of the reporting schools had a formal COVID-19 risk reduction plan in place.

“I think collecting information is always good, but I don’t see how this would make any change,” Schlitz said. “I don’t think the public health guidance at the county or state level are changing either.”

What stuck out to Schlitz is the 30% of COVID cases among student athletes in which the source was unknown.

“That’s I think why our schools are making the decision to stay virtual to protect communities from connectivity,” he said. “Athletics are a great way to connect not only 14 to 18-year-olds, but coaches and parents and grandparents and communities in general.”

He said the earliest in-person activities could return within the district, including sports, would be late January.

In Middleton, Sims said the survey reinforces the need to resume sports activities carefully.

Coaches are preparing for the winter sports season by submitting practice plans for Sims to approve. Athletes will begin in-person practice next month in adherence with public health guidance.

“So that we’re doing it in a way that will not cause or increase spread, but also allow us to work with our student athletes and help not just with physical wellbeing but mental health as well,” Sims said.

In Madison, Schlitz is keeping his eyes on public health numbers, waiting until they indicate it’s safe to plan a return to the field.

“It’s the best contest and scoreboard I can watch,” Schitz said. “I cannot wait to watch our daily incidents go down so we can get closer and closer to getting back to what we want.”