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Away Games: Fall sports return

After weeks of frustration, practices that seemed to be leading nowhere and protests by parents and athletes, the resounding cry of “Let Them Play” has been heard.

On Friday, Sept. 18, Rockwood announced its intention to allow its teams to compete this fall with one caveat … they won’t be playing in St. Louis County.

An email sent to parents and the media noted that Rockwood Superintendent Dr. Mark Miles “has asked district activities directors to honor previously scheduled competitions outside St. Louis County and to explore scheduling additional competitions beyond the borders of St. Louis County.”

Those competitions include all levels of sports: low, moderate and high contact.

According to St. Louis County’s guidelines, low-frequency contact sports and activities – including marching band, boys and girls cross country, girls golf, girls tennis and boys swimming and diving – can continue with full-team workouts and practices. Also, the students participating in those programs are permitted to compete with other teams in St. Louis County.

The guidelines also permit moderate- and high-frequency contact sports – including football, boys soccer, field hockey, softball, volleyball, cheerleading, escadrille and dance – to continue workouts and practices in St. Louis County. Rockwood’s decision also allows those teams to compete outside St. Louis County.

The district’s decision coincided with the deadline set by the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) for schools to commit playing this fall or waiting until spring.

In mid-August, MSHSAA ruled that schools could choose to move their fall sports seasons to an alternate fall season to be played between March 12 and May 1. Schools that chose that option could also choose an alternate spring season with competition beginning May 14 and concluding July 10.

Protestors in front of the Lawrence K. Roos Government Building in Clayton
Protestors in front of the Lawrence K. Roos Government Building in Clayton

In the days leading up to the decision, parents, athletes and others descended on the county government building in peaceful protests aimed at convincing County Executive Sam Page and the department of public health to modify its youth sports guidelines; and in same cases, calling for a change in in the upcoming General Election in which Page is running against Republican candidate Paul Berry III.

For parents, Rockwood’s decision came as long-awaited relief, though the process, and the county’s continuing restrictions, have resulted in strong opinions.

“I think the way that this whole scenario has played out from the county executive and the county health department’s perspective has been handled with an iron fist more than a velvet glove quite honestly,” Rockwood parent Jason Moore said.

Moore’s daughter is one of the kids whose time on the field is often overlooked in the youth sports conversation.

“She’s a senior at Marquette High and she’s part of the color guard and winter guard,” Moore explained.

When he talked with West Newsmagazine two days before Rockwood’s announcement, he lamented over is lost when sports aren’t played.
“It’s not only the personal experiences of the kids themselves – the camaraderie, the locker room, going on the bus to games … just everything – (but) it’s also a lifelong commitment that they want to finish off their high school careers on a high note being with their teammates,” Moore said.

Parkway Athletic Director Mike Roth in an interview with West Newsmagazine sports reporter Warren Mayes prior to the MSHSAA deadline noted that the lack of sports also is hard on parents. At press time, Parkway had not announced its decision regarding fall sports.

“Our student-athletes are the focal point but think of our parents,” Roth said. “It’s tough on them, too. They’ve been driving their son or daughter to practice since they were 4 or 5 years old. For a lot of them, this could be their last event in the fall. So they are missing out here, too.”

The county’s point of view
In May, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page rolled out the first set of youth sports guidelines based on recommendations from national, state and local governing bodies, including the county department of public health. Those guidelines have been modified multiple times over the past four months while coaches, athletes and their families waited for the OK to play.

On Sept. 18, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health issued a press statement noting that it had documented five clusters of COVID-19 transmission among student-athletes linked directly to sports practices or games. Each incident involves a group of high school students, the press statement said.

“In addition to those cases, we have identified more than 20 student-athletes who have contracted COVID-19 in recent weeks. In those instances, it’s not clear whether transmission occurred at an athletic or social activity,” the statement said “This comes amid a high number of cases among our adolescents – typically defined by medical authorities as those between 15 and 19 years old.”

The statement went on to say: “Even professional sports teams like the St. Louis Cardinals are not immune from transmission. The Cardinals have reported that 18 players and staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, and one has lost his life to the disease.

“The reality is that games in high-contact sports present a risk of transmission. Players are within inches of other players, breathing, spitting and yelling without masks. Physical exertion entails heavy breathing, which is known to be a vector of disease spread. And related activities such as team huddles, shared meals, team bus rides, frequent carpooling and crowds of spectators further compound transmission risk. Decreasing opportunities for young people to congregate and spread the virus is a priority for St. Louis County, particularly because transmission among young people puts in-person education at risk.”

The protestor’s point of view
Within the group of protestors were parents from both the Parkway and Rockwood school districts.

Additionally, a petition that was posted to change.org in July surged back to life in early September as frustration among athletes and families grew. By press time, it had reached nearly 10,000 signatures. Many of the comments associated with the petition cited the mental welfare of student-athletes who were being kept away from the playing field.

“The kids need to be in school and have sports. I work in the health care industry, depression is what I deal with 100% daily, mental health is a worse fear than any virus. The effect this will have on our youth is detrimental to them! #Lethemplay!,” wrote a woman named Brooke.

But for many parents and junior-year athletes, mental health is only part of the equation. Junior year is the most important recruiting year for student-athletes, especially for football.

“It’s a major concern for us,” said Priory’s Athletic Director Harold Barker. “We’ll go to bat for those kids.”

He said Priory football coach Jake Parent and soccer coach John Mohrmann are working on the situation.

“Jake and John are on the phone talking to anyone who will listen,” Barker said. “They’re working tirelessly to help the seniors who want to play at the next level.

“Life isn’t fair. Right now, (county guidelines are) the rules we have and it’s what we have to abide by. At Priory, we feel fortunate to have school open. The freshmen in my math class are just as wide-eyed as ever. We still have our school and that’s what is most important.”

Priory is part of the Metro Catholic Conference, whose lawyers have advised not going against St. Louis County recommendations.

Like Barker, Roth thinks there are lessons to be learned.

“The main lesson here is things don’t always turn out the way you want,” Roth said. “That’s the way life is. You have to keep striving and keep working toward your goal.”

(Sports reporter Warren Mayes contributed to this story.)

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