Metro Atlanta schools preparing for indoor winter sports amid COVID-19

Peachtree Ridge High School is one of the many schools across metro Atlanta preparing for the winter sports season with new COVID-19 precautions. Peachtree Ridge had to cancel two football games and quarantine several students after an athlete on an opposing team tested positive for COVID-19. (John Amis)
Peachtree Ridge High School is one of the many schools across metro Atlanta preparing for the winter sports season with new COVID-19 precautions. Peachtree Ridge had to cancel two football games and quarantine several students after an athlete on an opposing team tested positive for COVID-19. (John Amis)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Halfway through an unprecedented fall sports season, metro Atlanta schools are now drawing up plans for winter sports, including basketball, and making sure the play will be as safe as possible during the pandemic.

Winter sports present one major challenge absent from fall: they’re played indoors. There is a higher risk of spreading COVID-19 indoors compared to outdoor settings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because closeness between athletes can be unavoidable in some sports, many schools' precautions are heavy on screening out potentially sick players, coaches and spectators, and keeping people from getting too close off the court.

“We can’t really make changes to the game itself, but we can make changes before the game,” said James Jackson, executive director of athletics for the DeKalb County School District.

Besides basketball, schools are also gearing up for other indoor wintertime sports, including wrestling, swimming and diving.

The Georgia High School Sports Association manages regional and statewide interscholastic sports competition and sets standards for officiating. Membership is voluntary, and more than 465 public and private schools are members. DeKalb, Gwinnett and most other Georgia districts are following GHSA’s recommended safety procedures for athletics, along with guidance from local health departments.

“It is relentless what you have to do and what you put on staff and coaches through this pandemic to make sure staff and students are safe,” said Ed Shaddix, Gwinnett County Public Schools director of athletics.

Despite the risks, school officials say they believe sports is an important part of keeping students engaged, especially in districts where some or all students are learning remotely. The DeKalb County School District had previously planned to begin its hybrid return plan on October 19, but has since delayed the start of that plan and has not announced a new date. Students who wish to continue learning solely online, as DeKalb has done since the school year began, can do so. Gwinnett has already phased students back in, and 60% chose to continue learning from home.

“As a New Yorker that just moved here, I have a real appreciation what a huge part of the culture (sports) is here,” said Cheryl Watson-Harris, who started in the role of DeKalb County School District superintendent this summer. “It’s not just about the healthy experience for our students but the social piece, and the opportunity for our students to excel in a way they may not in other areas.”

Most of the practices adopted for fall sports will be carried over to winter:

  • Each student and staff member has their temperature taken and answers a questionnaire about any recent symptoms or potential contact with a case of COVID-19 before each practice and game
  • Gyms will have reduced capacities in order to allow social distancing among spectators, athletes and staff
  • Locker rooms are not used whenever possible. In sports like football, where athletes have to change into bulky pads and helmets, the number of people in the locker room at one time is limited.
  • Athletes bring their own water or take plastic bottles from a team stash instead of refilling their own bottles from a common vessel.

GHSA guidelines do not require spectators, coaches or athletes on the bench to wear masks, but recommend teams and schools follow local mask ordinances. Many metro Atlanta districts, including Gwinnett and DeKalb, require masks on district property.

Schools are largely not changing what happens on the court or in competition, but in the upcoming basketball season, there will be some tweaks made. Instead of the traditional tip-off, where players from the opposing teams stand face to face and try to gain first possession of the ball, visiting teams will automatically get first possession under GHSA guidelines. In overtime, the tip-off will be replaced by a coin flip.

A valuable lesson Gwinnett has taken from the fall sports season is what to do when an athlete tests positive for COVID-19. Four Gwinnett schools have canceled football games after positive tests on the team, and athletes that had close on-field contact with the student who tested positive have had to quarantine for two weeks.

For football teams, which can have more than 100 players on a roster, the need to quarantine hasn’t completely halted play. Usually a positive test will cause one or two position groups to quarantine. For instance, if one kicker tests positive for COVID-19 after a practice, most or all special teams players may have to quarantine.

In the case of Peachtree Ridge High School, an athlete on an opposing team had a positive case of coronavirus. Coaches and school officials reviewed game tape to determine which Peachtree Ridge players had gotten close to the sick student. A morning weight lifting session was cancelled so the school could identify all potential close contacts and inform students and parents. Two games were canceled to allow time for athletes to quarantine.

“We didn’t want anyone on campus who may be a close contact to a positive case,” said Peachtree Ridge Athletic Director Ryan Lesniak.

In Gwinnett’s four cases, the full football team was not required to quarantine. That could be different for basketball, a sport with much smaller rosters and players frequently changing the opposing players they cover, multiplying potential exposure. A positive test on the basketball court has a higher potential to put a whole team, or at least the starting lineup, under quarantine for two weeks because of its up-close nature.

So far, students are working hard to make sure they can keep playing, Jackson and Shaddix said. Sports have been an outlet for many student-athletes seeking something familiar in an abnormal school year.

“Their year ended early last year, and what they’re having to deal with with some in school and some out of school and everything going on in the world, I can see this is something normal these kids want,” Shaddix said. “They’re dealing with a pandemic, a nasty political election, social unrest — these kids need some normal.”

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