It really doesn’t need to be said that the world as a whole is experiencing something completely new. Being any kind of leader right now is highly difficult because there’s no playbook, historical example, or relevant comparison. Even the Spanish Flu of 1918 lacks the complexity of variables seen with the SARS-CoV-2 (more commonly known as the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease) pandemic. With our modern world of rampant travel alongside the ever-changing knowledge surrounding the virus- this whole situation is nothing less than severely intricate.
The education sector, specifically in West Virginia, will soon join this frenzy (if it hasn’t already) as students and sports (as of now) return in the Fall. We, as a state, are facing a pivotal moment in our generation. There is months of data to reflect upon, and we are going to try to take an honest, critical look at what the best moves forward should be. Lockdown and shutdown? Or learn to adapt and attempt to return to some sort of normality while being as safe as possible?
Before anything, we want to be clear that we are not attempting to make any type of push politically. We understand that much of this pandemic has evolved into partisan battle, but we are not trying to join that fight. Instead, we are doing our best to invite both sides credibility and an open mind while reviewing the known data as best we can. Our priorities are as follow:
- To keep educators, students, coaches, and players as safe as possible while maintaining a reasonable path
- To allow kids the much-needed opportunity to grow academically and socially while maintaining point one
- To safely continue forth with extracurricular activities that provide invaluable lessons, experiences, and opportunities
That’s it. We want to look at the plans in place, the problems that might arise, and potential solutions to think about proactively all while abiding by our three priorities.
We’ll break our concerns down into two segments: the health risks (both short-term and long-term) of our students/players and the health risks (both short-term and long-term) of our educators/coaches.
For young people, ages 5-9 years old, the infection fatality rate for COVID-19 is estimated to be .0016% by the American Council on Science and Health while the 10-19 age group’s infection fatality rate is even less at .00032% (SOURCE). There are good arguments on both sides for why these statistics can be misleading. There is a good chance with substantial evidence that many deaths were attributed to COVID-19 but perhaps were not due solely to the disease.
On the contrary, due to the uncertainty of when the virus made its way through the United States, there might be a substantial amount of deaths caused by COVID-19 that were not recorded as so prior to the known pandemic. However, it is safe to say that there is some merit to those numbers. For a relevant comparison, the 2018-2019 influenza season had an infection fatality rate of .00005% in ages 5-17 (found by comparing deaths to medical visits) (SOURCE). Meaning that there is a solid case that this virus is more serious than the seasonal flu even to young people.
~Statistics confirm that COVID-19 is more severe than the flu for younger age groups~
Of course, the rate is less important than the total amount of cases in West Virginia. Due to the geography of the Mountain State, the virus does not seem to spread as easily. West Virginia has remained towards the bottom of both total cases and cases per capita since the beginning of the pandemic to the present. The amount of daily positive cases has remained consistent before spiking in July. However, it is a fair argument to point out that the availability of testing has also risen. Contrary to this, the hospitalization rates have slowly risen with a “lagging effect” but not necessarily matching the rate of positive cases.
In terms of returning to school and sports, West Virginia should be not be compared without fair data education to surrounding states who have cancelled certain activities (namely Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania). Of all surrounding states, West Virginia has the lowest overall case fatality rate (1.76%), the lowest population proportion infected (0.36%), the lowest percentage of positive tests (2.32%), and the highest percentage of the population tested (15.5%). All are better than national averages as well. For West Virginia to make any decision based off surrounding states would simply be nothing short of a pure follower mentality. (SOURCE).
~West Virginia’s COVID-19 situation is much better than surrounding states and nationally~
Two more potential effects of this pandemic on our youth is the mental stress and lack of social growth due to being quarantined from kids in their age group. Many pediatricians around the country are urging that the mental effects pushed on children outweigh the risks of the COVID-19 disease itself (SOURCE). It is a similar concept to the argument that a recession of the economy could have more damage on people’s health in the long-run due to trickle down effects. Another notable point is that if schools move to out-of-class sessions, disadvantaged youth who might not have access to the proper resources will fall victim to an ever-widening gap of opportunity in academia.
~Not going to school and having extracurricular activities could cause unintended mental health issues with youth while also widening the educational resource gap for the disadvantaged~
Finally, this virus has only had several months to be researched and understood. The possibility of long-term effects could be very much there. Though our youth might not need hospitalizations, there might be unforeseen issues caused by the presence of the virus that could arise disastrously down the line. It should be considered into the equation as well.
~There could be long-term effects on anyone regardless of initial severity~
The health risks involved for administration looks much different. It is cemented that this virus is much more dangerous to higher age groups. The infection fatality rate for ages 20-49 is .0092% while 0.14% for those 50-64 years old. Once again, for comparison the 2018-2019 flu season saw infection fatality rates of .0006% (19-49) and .0014% (50-64). Both come from the previously listed sources. The same points apply as earlier with potential shortfalls of these numbers, but it is safe to say that it also affects older humans much worse than the seasonal flu. From the most recent statistics we could find from 2012, the average age of teachers in West Virginia is around 43 years old with 46% of the force falling in the 30-49 range while 15% in the 50-54 range. Most importantly, 22.6% were 55 or older. We would assume that coaches fall into similar age ratios.
~Statistics confirm that COVID-19 is more severe than the flu for older age groups which applies to many educators/coaches~
The teacher profession, specifically in West Virginia, has already been under some stress in recent years. With ongoing argument for being underpaid, stripped benefits, lacking resources, and an ever-growing standardized world- it seems like a trend moving forward that less people will go into the teaching profession while more tenured educators might just organize to not put themselves at risk and return. The potential that this all might result in a mass shortage of teachers is a very realistic, and it cannot be expected that substitutes fill this void.
~Teachers are already under duress on top of potentially putting their health at risk~
One final concern that hits home with us at Coalfields & Co. and is the main motivation in the formation of this piece is the absence of extracurricular activities and its consequences on our youth and communities. The obvious financial benefits for schools no matter the size does not need to be explained. It is significant. The primary concern in this realm is what does a year without extracurricular activities, specifically athletics, look like? Many athletes have been outspoken in the importance that being apart of a team gives them. A student’s relationship with a sport can vary but it is not overreaching to claim that by being apart of a team keeps them out of trouble by tying them to the responsibilities of practice and games. It is some players’ absolute motivation to give effort in school and to avoid disciplinary problems in class. It can provide an escape and resources for those impoverished and those lacking proper role models. Though only a fraction, it is a vital financial opportunity potentially to attend college realistically. Thousands and thousands of our youth, in a state struggling with poverty, will be missing everything just listed in a crucial part of their life. These consequences, though more abstract, must be weighed against the ongoing virus.
Before delving into solutions, it should be understood exactly what we are up against. The statistics provided earlier all tell the story of how bad the virus is if you get it but not necessarily the likelihood. We are not going to attempt to make any type of projections because that is something left to the true experts but we will try to look at some numbers and make a reasonable conclusion. Per the CDC, the 2017-2018 flu season saw an estimated 45 million cases in the United States (SOURCE). Comparatively, the current number of cases nearing August 1st, 2020 for COVID-19 is an estimated 4 million nationally (SOURCE). Interpret this comparison as you please and make the projections you want. Even with cases increasing, it does not seem likely that the infections will multiply (at least within West Virginia) by 11.25 over the next four months. This is also considering things such as herd immunity (to an extent as there is solid evidence against and for its significance), furthering precautions being taken, and the geography of West Virginia. This is something else that must be weighed by what is known about the actual effects of COVID-19.
~COVID-19 is much less virulent than the flu~
One final thing to understand about the virus is how it spreads. It has been mostly confirmed that the main way of transmission is through respiratory droplets. Its best situation of transmission comes with prolonged engagement with other individuals within six feet of one another (noted that the chance of infection is heightened in indoor and poorly ventilated areas). It is much less likely to spread on surfaces. It’s ability to spread on surfaces also varies on the type of material, temperature, and other factors. It also cannot spread through sweat or when digesting food and is weakened in warmer weather (and potentially weakened by sunlight though not confirmed). This is one last thing to keep in mind when looking for realistic and worthwhile solutions (SOURCE).
Firstly, we do not see sporting events on the high school level being a particular problem for the spread of the virus (at least for outdoor events- indoor events might need to take a no-fan approach). For football, fans being required to wear masks and social distancing could easily be enforced by placing markers resembling concepts in grocery stores that stretch out lines for admission, bathrooms, and concessions. Similar spacing markers could be placed along the fences of the field and in the bleachers. Also, with the furthering of access to online streaming, at-risk fans/parents will be able to stay home altogether.
As for those participating in the games, the WVSSAC has already laid out some good guidelines that should limit the spread to the opponents and referees. Simple distancing, lengthening of time breakages, and constant sanitation are all spelled out. There has been some push for face shields or the wearing of masks during events but this might cause different problems. It should be considered that the prospects of sweat-soaked masks allowing potential bacteria growth and/or clouded breathing should be on everyone’s minds so that quick reactions can take place if needed (SOURCE).
One final situation that is sure to rise: what is the protocol is a player or player(s) tests positive? Will they have to quarantine for one or two weeks or will the entire team be forced to have no contests for the next fourteen days? If only the player quarantines but cases rise on the opposing team after playing, who is liable? We can already see this becoming a dumpster fire of liability and panicking. We think it should just be handled calmly and easily. The player who tested positive should quarantine for either two weeks or for what the doctors suggest (minimum of five days we assume). If possible, the rest of team should get tested too. We believe it would be beneficial for everyone if coaches could use infrared thermometers to catch any early symptoms. Finally, in terms of liabilities, if it appears that this will turn into a big legal rat’s nest, the state should offer a waiver that has signed responsibilities of students and their parents on the potential risks of infection. We do not think positive cases should automatically cause for a no contest.
If there is going to be a return to somewhat normalcy, everyone needs to be prepared to keep not just themselves but their families safe. Students that have at-risk family members will have to limit their contact during the school year or utilize a remote opportunity to learn. The same goes for if the student has underlying issues themselves- it does not appear anyone is advocating for people to put themselves at risk. Instead, the education system now has an opportunity to experiment and get creative to help students learn. There will need to be thought-out strategies in organizing bus rides that are not packed with kids, lunchrooms properly spread out, shortened instruction days with less class changes alongside potential moving to under five days a week, and of course, a chance to utilize more online education. Obviously, we understand the social and psychological benefits of physical learning but it would be a chance wasted to work in better technology-use.
As for athletics and extracurricular activities, the guidelines established by the WVSSAC should prevent as much exposure as possible. The main areas of potential transmission will take place in the lockerroom, practice field/court, and traveling on buses. Lockerrooms have already began to be spaced out. If there isn’t proper air ventilation, perhaps think about using industrial fans to keep air from being stagnant and lingering. Sanitation must be something taken to the next level. Coaches and players both will need to step up their game to make sure lifting/training equipment is sterile, bathrooms are sanitized, and lockerrooms are as a clean as possible. For practices, limited contact and less large groups is key. If there is an option to move to individual, spread out drills- it should be done. If there is an option to be outside- it should be done. Sterilization should carry over to the constant wiping down of sports balls and equipment. For traveling, some sports might be able to have parents drive kids to games. If buses must be taken, attempt one athlete to a seat with the windows open (if possible). If players can dress at home and show up ready to warm-up and play without going into more lockerrooms- it should be done.
- Limit contact by spreading out classrooms, buses, lockerrooms, and stadiums
- Step up sanitation in schools, weightrooms, and fields
- Utilize fresh air with outdoor practices and windows
- Minimize large groups in lunches, classrooms, and practices
- Minimize movement during school between classes and in hallways
- Utilize symptom-spotting tools such as infrared thermometers
- Enforce mask/facial covering wearing as much as possible
- Be conscious of going back around at-risk family members
- Utilize online technology when possible for meetings, classes, film, and streaming events
We would also like to use this article’s platform to promote this FREE course on COVID-19 for coaches and administrators: LINK
As we spelled out, there are plenty of excellent ways to limit transmission during school and sports across multiple scenarios. And, we are not experts on this type of programming so imagine what highly experienced people can put together. To restate, we don’t believe that any of this is more important than the life of a student, teacher, player, coach, or family member. We, however, are looking at the more long-term effects on a magnitude of people’s lives if they cannot function within their normal society. Also, a vaccine is not a guarantee. There is a good chance that this will be around for some time so there should be some level of push to get back to normal and work creatively to deal with it while countering the other issues that come via quarantining.
Going forth, everyone should expect a mess of politics, misinformation, complaining, constant plan changes, and a lot of stress. As we said before, we must remind ourselves that this pandemic is like nothing we have ever dealt with as a society. There are going to be growing pains and when there is no playbook, there is going to be a lot of differing ideas on how to move forward. What we are looking for is leadership. A leader, in this case, is someone or some council that looks at the objective facts of the virus (specifically locally relevant case numbers, infection rates, and virulence charts), potential effects of not having any type of in-school sessions and extracurricular activities (mental health, social growth, educational resource gap, and potential loss of opportunity), and making the best case for us in West Virginia based on our situation- not what other states are doing around us or around the country. We are a unique region with plenty of variables in our favor that should allow decisions to be made here independent of other trends.
The graph above is what we are up against currently. It is a threat but let’s treat the threat relative its size. With all the protocols and solutions going to be put in place, we believe that this graphic could look even better despite returning to school- it is not like cancelling school and sports is going to keep people quarantined, they will just flock to other activities such as non-regulated sports leagues like AAU and travel teams, and/or local places of entertainment without stricter guidelines. Would it not be better to have everyone participating under the state’s watch? Moving forth, as a state, let’s be respectful to one another’s ideas as we all have good intentions. Let’s respect each other and take the precautions that could keep others healthy. Let’s treat this pandemic seriously. Let’s also think about the equally severe effects of social isolation and opportunity loss by shutdowns. Let’s look at all the facts before making big decisions. Let’s come together and beat this in multiple ways. The people involved want to play. This is an opportunity for West Virginia to be a leader.