TRAVERSE CITY — The state of Michigan isn’t tracking or reporting COVID-19 infections in sports, but a high school teacher in Kansas is.
According to a database managed by the National Education Association, a substantial number of reported COVID-19 cases in Michigan schools have involved high school athletics.
The database is inspired by the works of a suburban Kansas City theater teacher, Alisha Morris at Olathe West, who used Google Docs to compile media reports of the disease in K-12 schools.
It says, 38 of 148 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in high schools have involved student athletes or coaches of high school sports. In 24 cases, districts confirmed the cases to be student athletes as opposed to coaches. Two were confirmed to be a coach, the rest were not identified to be either or.
Football was identified as the sport for 17 of the 38 cases, the largest being an outbreak at Birmingham Seaholm with three members of the football team testing positive.
Gladstone didn’t play Friday because a player tested positive, neither did Portage Central after a coach tested positive.
But Lake Orion canceled its game after two members of its team tested positive, enough to be considered an outbreak by the definition of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Lake Orion did not, however, appear in Monday’s release of school outbreaks by MDHHS.
Bob Wheaton, spokesperson for MDHHS, said in an email the department is committed to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and review its recommendation for contact sports.
“Lower rates of transmission may allow for contact sports to resume safely in the future,” Wheaton said. “However, MDHHS has strongly recommended avoiding contact sports at this time due to the high risk of disease transmission.”
Volleyball was named for three of the cases, two were in cross country, the only other fall sport the Michigan High School Athletic Association is playing is soccer, with no cases reported in the NEA’s data. Four cases were identified in members of school bands.
Other school activities listed with one case were girls basketball, field hockey, cheer, dance, and girls lacrosse. No sport was named for the other seven cases — among them, the case of the student athlete at Traverse City West Senior High School who tested positive last week.
“Even with mitigation measures such as wearing masks, disease transmission cannot be completely prevented with prolonged or intense contact,” Wheaton said.
Karen Leinaar, Athletic Director at Bear Lake and a member of the MHSAA’s representative council, said the data doesn’t necessarily mean a person contacted the disease because they participated in athletics. She noted that there haven’t been outbreaks affecting entire teams, to which she believes is because of the mitigation factors the MHSAA has recommended.
“I think that what is going to happen is we’re going to see ebbs and flows of this virus that are going to be connected to athletics,” Leinaar said. “Is that fair or not? I don’t know. These kids are constantly together.
“That’s why we were so intense this summer, and continue to be with our coaches, about working kids in pods and small groups so that you can trace those contacts. Now that we’re competing, it gets a bit tougher.”
The NEA list is considered widely incomplete, requiring a media story or document from the district disclosing the case. Leinaar recalled a golf practice at Saline High School canceled after a member of the program tested positive, which the database didn’t include.
Several entries, for example, share that two weeks of workouts were canceled for the entire athletic department without naming a positive case. Michigan doesn’t require school districts to share that information publicly.
The numbers of cases are also considered to be significantly undercounted, especially in instances like the following entry from Howell High School dated Aug. 25:
“Earlier this month, a group of Howell varsity football players was told to self-quarantine for 14 days after one of them reported that a friend with whom he had been in close contact with tested positive for COVID-19,” Howell Athletic Director John Young said.
The story in the Livingston Daily didn’t define how many the “group” was.