Opinion: The Overlooked Importance of Returning to School Sports

By Joshua So

“I don’t go to school for class.  I go to school to play volleyball, and I make it through 5 other classes.”

High school sports have become a mere afterthought for everyone but student-athletes as schools have adapted to COVID regulations.  Naturally, we must prioritize some areas over others, given limited resources and many safety concerns.  However, when schools return, whether next school year or even later, the importance of athletics should not be dismissed in any reopening plan.  

Without in-person contact, enthusiasm and involvement in club activities and school spirit has effectively died.  Proposed club events are met with widespread apathy, and spirit events continue to be largely ignored by the student body.  Nevertheless, student-athletes continue to advocate for any opportunity to return to their sport, which speaks to the impact that high school athletics have on student-athletes.  

Oftentimes, we participate in our sport not solely based on a love for the activity itself but also for the connections we maintain.  The community created within each of our teams provides much-needed interaction and support to each member, the disconnect from which can be especially harmful to a student’s mental health.  In a time when over 30% of young people are feeling more unhappy or depressed, according to a survey from America’s Promised Alliance, it should be evident that athletic programs should be central to any plan to support our student’s basic needs.  

As students grapple with social disconnect and deteriorating mental health, struggles with learning motivation are brought to light.  I can remember saying even before I knew for sure that last year’s volleyball season was canceled, “I don’t go to school for class.  I go to school to play volleyball, and I make it through 5 other classes.”  Simply put, volleyball was my primary motivation to focus in class, budget my time efficiently, and get all my work and studying done ahead of time, and I am confident that many other student-athletes share this feeling.  As teachers and administrators scramble to gauge and address the growing achievement gap in students, remember that even in-person teaching will only be as effective as a student will allow it.  

Now that the facts on COVID transmission are commonly available, there should be no problem determining what sports pose little to no risk of transmission.  Take badminton, for example, where teams from schools are separated across a net with plenty of space.  This argument can be exaggerated by using tennis, baseball, or golf as more examples of sports held outside that can be easily distanced.  Since the leading cause of COVID spread is person-to-person transmission through respiratory droplets, outdoor events present little risk.  Similarly, there should be no problem in removing unnecessary precautions that have little effect.  Obsessions over deep cleaning surfaces have little effect in preventing COVID spread and can even lead to a false sense of security, according to the New York Times.  Instead, resources should be used to renovate indoor ventilation systems to reduce the risk of particles remaining in the air.  Returning to sports does not have to be an all-or-nothing deal, rather a rolling plan beginning with the easiest and safest activities to support at least some students.

Athletics programs are not just an optional, dismissible after school program. They are an integral part of a student’s health and academic life with far-reaching effects.  Whether or not you value sports or will have the opportunity to return to your own sport, fully supporting the reopening of relatively safe activities should be a priority for all of us.

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