Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has some words of advice to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer:
Let the kids play.
Vitti wrote to Whitmer on Monday urging her to resume school sports such as basketball, competitive cheerleading, hockey, volleyball and wrestling, which were suspended late last year amid rising cases of COVID-19.
“To be direct, winter ‘contact’ sports need to start,” Vitti said in a letter he released publicly. “Here in Detroit, despite continuing and legitimate fears about COVID within the community, our 31 female and male high school coaches want to play basketball.”
Current state health orders prevent these sports from contact practice or competition until Feb. 21. On Monday, Whitmer said the state continues to monitor several data points, including the emergence of the new and more contagious coronavirus variant as it weighs allowing more sports to resume.
“I understand the concern that parents and athletes have and their desire to reengage, but I also point to some events that just happened over the last couple of days, with seeing this variant growing in and around Washtenaw County and around the University of Michigan campus,” Whitmer said.
“I want to commend the University of Michigan for taking the actions that they did. We think that those are the right steps to keep people safe. Our job is to try and curtail the spread of this new variant in Michigan. We’ve got to not let our guard down.”
Recently, the university announced a two-week temporary pause of all athletic events related to cases of the coronavirus variant. The university believes a student-athlete who traveled from the U.K. may have exposed others to the virus variant. At least 13 people in Washtenaw County have this variant, health officials said Monday.
But after Whitmer addressed the media, a group of U-M student-athletes spoke out against the shutdown of athletics and began an online petition.
In a statement, Michigan health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin noted that in August and September, there were 42 outbreaks connected to athletic programs at either the K-12, collegiate or professional level or at “commercial venues.” She did not further break down this data.
“Sports that require frequent closeness between players make it more difficult to prevent disease transmission, compared to sports where players are not as close to each other. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is increased by the number of individuals a player physically interacts with, as well as the intensity and duration of that interaction,” the statement said.
Although high school football was allowed to resume, Sutfin said the risks are greater for indoor contact sports because of a lack of natural ventilation and the fact athletes are regularly very close to one another.
Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director Mark Uyl released a statement on Monday, stating his organization was unable to provide specific plans regarding the schedule of these contact winter sports.
“We will continue asking questions and advocating for all of our schools and athletes as we work toward building our next plans for seasons in basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling. We will be ready with specific timelines as soon as MDHHS clears contact sports to begin full activity,” Uyl said in the statement.
Vitti has long advocated allowing sports to continue amid the pandemic. He noted in his letter that he’s “a supporter and critical colleague, not an adversary” of Whitmer.
Still, he voiced frustration that he said is shared by many who want school sports to resume.
“I have grown frustrated with the lack of communication and clarity regarding when the start of winter ‘contact’ sports will be, why it has not started and what needs to occur for it to start,” Vitti wrote.
Vitti said 80% of states have resumed winter contact sports and Michigan should follow suit.
“Our families have analyzed the risk of playing and they want to play,” Vitti said. “As you know, this is the same sentiment across the state among thousands of players, coaches, and families for not only basketball, but hockey and wrestling as well.”
Vitti said with Whitmer’s goal of offering in-person learning to students in every district by early March, reinstating winter sports is crucial. With movie theaters, casinos and bingo halls opening, sports should reopen as well, Vitti said, noting that some athletes are already leaving the state to compete in states that have reopened.
“Please do not let this frustration reach the level of a lawsuit against you and the state,” Vitti said. “Coaches, student-athletes, and their parents are in conversation with attorneys. Standing on this matter is clear regarding mental health, physical well-being, and the loss of scholarship opportunities.”
Whitmer reiterated the state will continue to monitor case rates, test positivity rates and other statistics. She did not provide a timeline as to when indoor contact sports could resume.
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