This fall, school sports need to take one for the team

We understand the disappointment of high school athletes who won’t be able to compete this season. The Enterprise devotes a fair share of its resources every school year to cover sports at Voorheesville, Guilderland, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo.

We believe sports are important not just to individual athletes but to entire communities. Sporting events bring people together and engender a sense of belonging and pride in a community.

We consider high school sports to be an important part of education and worth covering not just because tax dollars are paying for it but because students can learn lessons on the playing field that will last a lifetime. Each sports season, we try to cover every team at our schools, not just the teams that are winning.

However, we believe that health and safety in the time of coronavirus trumps all.

We commend the Colonial Council, of which Voorheesville is a member, on its stance last week, deciding that only athletes in what the state has deemed “low-risk” sports — golf and tennis — will be allowed to compete this season. The Western Athletic Conference, in which BKW participates, made a similar decision.

The governor has left it up to individual school districts — within the state-set parameters — to decide what sports teams will practice and compete. In the neighboring district of Bethlehem, soccer and field hockey players and their parents have been protesting Bethlehem’s decision not to allow moderate-risk sports while the Suburban Council, to which the district belongs, is going ahead with them.

At Guilderland, also a member of the Suburban Council, a school board member asked how students could play soccer — would they be in a bubble? — without getting within six feet of each other as state guidance requires.

The Colonial Council took the pressure off of individual districts by making a league decision.

“We, as a league, believe it is essential to err universally, on the side of caution, as we navigate the COVID pandemic situation,” the league wrote in announcing its decision.

We believe this is a wise decision at this time. With schools reopening just this month, after being shut statewide in March, there is much catching up to do and many new protocols for students and staff alike to navigate in order to maintain safety so that learning may progress.

Also, much is not known about coronavirus disease 2019. State and federal regulations are ever-changing as scientific studies are undertaken and protocols evolve to match emerging research.

A small study of both male and female college athletes, for example, recently showed COVID-19 may be linked to inflammation of the heart. The study, published online on Sept. 11 in the Journal of the American Medical Association Cardiology, looked at 26 athletes who had tested positive for COVID-19 but had no symptoms or only mild symptoms; four of them later showed signs of inflammation in their heart muscles.

In July, JAMA Cardiology had published a study that showed 78 percent of the studied 100 middle-aged women and men who had moderate to severe cases of COVID-19, compared to the hearts of healthy people in a control group, had inflammation in their cardiac muscles or high levels of substances that indicate tissue damage.

Although most of us think of COVID-19 as a respiratory illness, various studies have shown it can affect kidneys, the digestive tract, blood vessels, and the brain.

Why risk a young athlete’s health for life to play sports now?

We remember years ago, before the lifetime damage from concussions was widely understood, how students — supported by their parents and coaches — were eager to get back in the game after a “knock on the head.” 

It took a lot of scientific research for programs, from the high school to the professional levels, to realize and reckon with the dangers of concussions. We’re pleased that our schools now take baseline studies, using ImPACT (Immediate Post Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) software, and keep players out of games until they are sure about the damage done.

But, in the midst of a pandemic, with research around the globe underway, there simply hasn’t been enough time to understand the effects of COVID-19 on those who contract it.

We believe that exercise is important not just for high school athletes but for people of any age. The human race has known this for centuries. “Eating alone will not make a man well; he must also take exercise,” Hippocrates wrote 2,500 years ago.

The current pandemic has made this clear.

Investigators at the State University of New York Downstate Health Sciences University, for example, identified obesity as a potential risk factor for adverse COVID-19 outcomes. The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, is believed to be the first to show a significant mortality risk among obese or overweight patients.

In August, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, who had long pushed for gyms to be allowed to reopen, cited statistics on two leading underlying health issues of New Yorkers who had died from COVID-19: 13,000 with hypertension and 9,000 with diabetes. Regular physical activity, McCoy said, could improve or prevent these conditions.

That’s true. But, when gyms did finally reopen, many of their customers did not return. A Siena College Research Institute poll released earlier this month found that 70 percent of New Yorkers are not comfortable with working out at a gym.

A report, published in Emerging Infectious Diseases and posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, indicates why COVID-19 can spread easily at gyms and fitness centers, based on a study of fitness dance classes, which are popular in South Korea because of the high aerobic intensity.

“Before sports facilities were closed, a total of 217 students were exposed in 12 facilities, an attack rate of 26.3%,” the report says, noting the virus can be spread by people who don’t show symptoms or before they show symptoms.

It also says, “The moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets.” People breathe harder when they work out, which is the prime way the virus spreads from person to person.

The report concludes, “Because of the increased possibility of infection through droplets, vigorous exercise in closely confined spaces should be avoided during the current outbreak, as should public gatherings, even in small groups.”

At the same time, a New York Times survey this summer of remote workers showed that 33 percent said they were exercising more than before the start of the pandemic shutdown.

From this we can learn that, while it may be dangerous now to play competitive sports or to work out at a gym, we can exercise without that.

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen for the past five or six months has, at county press briefings, spoken of the “importance of physical activity and keeping your body healthy.”

She has made that point many times, stating that, When she was a primary-care physician, patients frequently told her that they didn’t have time to exercise. With the shutdown, Whalen stressed, many people now had the time to exercise on their own. She said in April that it is easy to exercise at home and does not require fancy equipment.

Whalen has also said that exercise can help prevent chronic diseases that are exacerbated by being overweight or not physically fit. In August, she urged, “Re-evaluate and consider opportunities to improve yourself.”

We echo her words and suggest, both for schools and individuals of any age to consider walking or running. This week launches the state’s Car Free for Climate campaign to support New York's ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030, and 85 percent by 2050, from 1990 levels. So why not walk or bike instead of drive this week?

With more than a third of public school students in New York State overweight, we urge our schools to follow the program carried out successfully in the Naperville school district in Illinois, which we promoted on this page five years ago.

We believe its time has come.

In the 1990s, Phil Lawler started what was then a radical program at Naperville. Every student from sixth through 12th grade had to attend physical education class every day. A baseline fitness level was established for each student, so each could improve according to his or her own baseline.

This was a departure from the team-focused gym classes of old where certain students regularly excelled and others felt left out. The kids in Naperville wore heart monitors so their teachers could see how far each pushed herself or himself, regardless of the outcome. For example, winning a race wasn’t important; rather, what mattered was how hard a student tried.

The students at Naperville are to maintain a rate of 160 to 190 beats per minute for 25 minutes. The program worked, according to physical measurements. In 2001-03, just 3 percent of Naperville Central High School freshmen were overweight, compared to many, many times that nationally.

But, of equal importance, academic performance improved markedly. In 1999, eighth-graders at Naperville took a test given in 38 countries around the world and scored in the top 10 percent.

We believe the Naperville model is one that our schools should emulate. It teaches all students, not just the athletes who excel at sports, the value of exercise — a lesson that can last a lifetime.

And in the time of coronavirus it would keep our kids safe — getting exercise at a healthy distance from others and keeping off weight that is also dangerous.

Let’s not damage the health of our youth in a rush to normalcy. One of the things we’ve learned from sports is a smart strategy can carry the day.

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