Mixed reaction to DC mayor’s ‘tentative’ plan for return to high school sports

While all 50 states have reinstated some high school sports, D.C. hasn’t. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Thursday announced that will change in two weeks with a “tentative plan” to return teens to practice, but some think the lifting of the restrictions falls short.

“So let me be perfectly candid that we hope on March 15, that this plan moves forward. And it would be … paused, would not be able to move forward, if we saw any significant changes in our metrics,” the mayor said in a news conference Thursday.

The city’s plan is to return students to sports in phases, beginning with conditioning, followed by skill development in no-contact practice, and finally moderate-contact practice. There was no discussion of allowing competition between D.C. schools or outside the city. The mayor pointed families to D.C.’s State Athletic Association for further guidance, but no additional detail is yet available.

If increasing metrics force a pause to the return plan, D.C. will remain the only jurisdiction in the country where high school sports are still restricted due to pandemic concerns, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“We’re very, very grateful, though, that the mayor is hearing the voices of students and coaches recognizing how important sports are to their mental, physical and social-emotional health, and that she is ready to tentatively lift that ban,” said Jessica Sutter, the Ward 6 representative to the D.C. State Board of Education.

The mayor’s announcement comes three days after Sutter wrote to City Hall asking the mayor to consider lifting restrictions on high school athletics. Dozens of parents, coaches, and educators testified to the board during its February public meeting, citing science, status and fairness as reasons why teens should see a return to sports.

“Our student-athletes here in the District are watching students from around the country participate in extracurricular activities that have been a part of their lives for many years. While our students are being told time and time again, that it is not time for them to join their groups or teams,” Coach Micheal Hunter said in his testimony to the D.C. State Board of Education last month.

In his role as football coach and athletic director at Friendship Public Charter School, and a founding member of the Public Charter School Athletic Association, Hunter said he has seen a negative impact on students due to the lack of social interaction they get from participating in clubs and athletics. Students’ relationships, their GPAs and their college chances are being hurt due to the sports restrictions, he said.

“And then there’s the financial burden of college, which athletics can help lift for several students on my team. We typically have double-digit students signing college scholarships. While we are very proud of the students who did receive scholarships this year, that number was cut in half,” Hunter said.

The city’s plan to return to play does not include any detail on competition, which would continue to affect students attempting to compete against other college-bound athletes who are able to generate stats to earn a scholarship.

“I do wish she’d offered clearer information on the return to competition,” Sutter said. “I know Baltimore City Schools is resuming athletics next week, on March 8, and offered a five-phase plan, including dates for the start of competition in April. I think that their students are going to be incredibly happy to be back practicing with their teammates and their coaches. But I do think that not having clarity on if and when a return to competition will happen is something so on the minds of a lot of folks,” said Sutter.

Also at issue: A return to sports is not considered tentative for other groups in the city, who saw restrictions loosened three months ago.

“When you go to the parks and playgrounds, you see young children playing with one another … masked, but playing with one another. You see youth sports gathering to play soccer in the parks. You see adults returning to pools, and to gyms doing masked sports, and the only people in our city who are currently not allowed to gather and practice or play sports are high school athletes,” Sutter said.

It was one of many restrictions meant to protect residents that were listed in the public health emergency executive order, such as limitations on restaurant capacity and social distancing rules. Grouping the restrictions in the emergency order allows lawmakers to extend a number of provisions at once if needed, rather than extend each individually.

“So we asked in our letter for the mayor to lift the connection between the public health emergency and the ban on high school athletics so that young people could get back to practice and play now,” Sutter said. “What we heard from the D.C. State Athletic Association is that they intended to resume sport on March 18, right after the expiration.”

However, the D.C. Council extended the public health emergency from March 17 to May 20.

 

In response to the question of when high school sports could return, the Mayor’s office responded: “We started to see steady improvement in our health metrics, but now the daily case rate — a leading indicator — has started to increase. We will communicate more on the reopen runway in the second half of March. It will likely start with allowing more societal functions, followed by economic functions.”

It will be more difficult to keep kids from playing outside as the weather warms up regardless of the mayor’s order, and Sutter said the science supports that it can be done safely.

“As the weather improves, and we get on to spring weather, we also know that the virus seems to transmit less outdoors — that it is safest to be outdoors in this pandemic. And we’d love to see our students get back to interacting in person safely outdoors with trusted adults like their coaches,” Sutter said.


More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.


Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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