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Elk Rapids’ Caleb Kerfoot wears a mask while playing Kingsley at Elk Rapids High School in Elk Rapids on Wednesday.

TRAVERSE CITY — High school sports returned to action in full swing Tuesday and Wednesday, but some school officials believe it is only a matter of time before the smoke and flames from the omicron wildfire reach athletics.

“It’s everywhere, whether they know it or not,” Suttons Bay Public Schools Superintendent Casey Petz said of the COVID-19 variant. “There have been lots and lots and lots of symptomatic kids over the last three days, and more are coming.”

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Petz said every school district in Leelanau County is being hit hard and has “major issues” with positive COVID-19 cases. He worries the “don’t test, don’t tell” mentality in and outside of sports will only worsen the problem and contribute to the spread of the most contagious variant of the pandemic-causing virus.

“Your friend group, my friend group and the student groups I’m in tune with, it’s like somebody went to a New Year’s Eve party and 30 people ended up with COVID,” Petz said. “It’s nuts. That was not happening before.”

Positive cases and quarantines will no doubt eventually lead to games being canceled, Petz said.

“If you look at what’s happening in professional sports, it’s kind of the canary in the mineshaft,” he said. “If the NFL and the NBA and the NHL can’t keep people on the field of competition, how are we going to do it? We’re nowhere near as resourced in trying to figure those things out.”

Traverse City Central High School Athletic Director Justin Thorington can’t help but recall March 2020 when he was the AD at Saginaw Heritage High School and had to pull the hockey team off the bus as they prepared to head to the state semifinals and tell them they wouldn’t be going. Thorington had to break the same bad news to Heritage’s state finals-bound swim team as COVID-19 restrictions dropped like a hammer.

Now, as cases continue to rise, the Trojan AD said everyone is “prepared to be light on their toes and go with whatever happens.”

“Obviously it’s not fun and not ideal, but — after a year and a half, two years of this — we know how to handle it,” Thorington said.

Last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Michigan Department of Education sent letters to school superintendents across the state urging districts to reinforce actions to alleviate risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic as classes resumed after the holiday break — particularly in anticipation of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to strongly recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. MDHHS officials also advised modifying planned school activities during which proper social distancing between people from different households cannot be maintained and said large gatherings of 100 or more people “should be held using remote technology or postponed, if not essential.” That includes sporting events.

Michigan High School Athletic Association Communication Director Geoff Kimmerly said those decisions are left to local school districts and county health departments. Kimmerly said the MHSAA’s role during the remainder of the regular season is to make sure opposing teams traveling are aware of and will follow the local rules at those venues.

Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent John VanWagoner said district staff will “continue to evaluate” the situation as more data becomes available. The TCAPS Board of Education voted last month to allow the district’s mask mandate to expire after Dec. 31. Students and staff now have the option of whether or not to wear a mask while indoors.

Petz said he doesn’t know of any school officials following the MDHHS and MDE recommendation on sporting events with more than 100 people.

“Nobody’s doing that because that’s a good way to get yourself fired or attacked,” Petz said. “But we’re not going to have a choice. There’s just going to be too many people positive.”

Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said his district has confirmed 63 school-associated cases this school year compared to 29 all of last year. However, he said nothing in those numbers tells him that he needs to “make a big adjustment” to sports or other extracurricular activities.

“Before I look into canceling games, we would look at greatly limiting spectators,” Smith said, suggesting possibly allowing only parents of student-athletes to attend games. “Worst-case scenario, we let the kids play and — thanks to the beauty of technology — we can stream most of the games online.”

Smith doesn’t deny the rise in cases is a cause for concern. He said he spoke with an area doctor who is seeing more COVID-19 cases now than at any point during the pandemic.

“Teams are going to start being affected,” Smith said, recalling the undefeated Kingsley football team that had to forfeit its playoff run in 2020. “You get these small teams in basketball and wrestling, just a couple positive kids can knock a team out.”

The plan now is to watch the numbers and adapt accordingly, Smith said.

“Sports are a very important part of school, but it’s not the most important part,” he said. “Most people are trying to balance being responsible with health and safety while still getting these kids as much of a high school experience as possible.”

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