St. Lawrence County schools can't require COVID-19 tests for athletes unless mandated by county health officials
BY JIMMY LAWTON
North Country This Week
CANTON – St. Lawrence County school districts can't require COVID-19 tests for athletes participating in high-risk sports.
That decision now lies solely with the St. Lawrence County Public Health Department, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.The State Education Department told schools Feb. 16 that they could not require testing of athletes playing high-risk sports like hockey and basketball, unless the county public health departments mandate it.
That news is requiring some school districts that approved sports safety plans to revisit their documents as some, like Canton, had planned to require testing.
“On Tuesday, the New York State Education Department issued a memo that unless required by the County Public Health Department, schools cannot require COVID-19 testing as a condition to participate in athletics or extracurricular activities. This memo has placed a number of schools around the state in a difficult situation with their plans no longer being compliant,” a statement issued by Canton Central School said.
“As a result, our interscholastic program remains on pause at Canton. On Tuesday, February 23 at 6:45, the Board of Education will hold a special meeting to consider a revised Winter Sports Plan that includes voluntary weekly testing for COVID-19.”
St. Lawrence County Public Health’s guidance recommends, but does not require, districts to test athletes playing high-risk sports. The reasoning for that decision is unclear, as St. Lawrence County Public Health has not responded to multiple phone calls regarding a variety of issues related to high-risk sports over the past two weeks. However on Monday afternoon, officials said they would respond Tuesday.
“While not mandated, it is recommended that each student/athlete, coach, manager, referee/official, or other individual associated with the higher-risk sport undergo weekly testing,” the guidance from the health department says.
It’s possible St. Lawrence County Public Health could revisit the testing guidance based on the state Education Department’s memo and other factors. Some counties have made revisions to their original guidance in lieu of new information and circumstances.
Although officials have not commented on why testing wasn’t required in their guidance, public health likely sought to allow the districts the freedom to decide on their own. Under the new state Education Department determination, if the county public health department does not mandate testing, then districts can’t require it either.
That means any testing that is done under the current public health guidelines will be voluntary and is likely to vary widely between districts.
In some counties, testing has been mandated. With sports seasons underway, it’s unclear if high-risk sports in other counties has pushed up case numbers there or if the contests are contributing to school’s pivoting to remote learning due to COVID-19 exposures.
Franklin County’s plan requires participating districts to have testing plans in place. It also recommends that each student athlete, coach, manager, referee or other individual associated with high-risk sports get tested weekly.
According to St. Lawrence County Public Health, sports like basketball and hockey do increase the risk of spreading COVID-19. However, officials have not indicated to what extent that risk might be to athletes or the broader student body.
“Contact sports increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. If schools and other organizations, athletes, and their parents/guardians choose to resume higher risk sports, they must do so in a safe manner and give considerable thought to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We must work collaboratively during this pandemic to ensure that our athletes have the opportunity to participate in athletics safely,” St. Lawrence County Public Health Director Dr. Dana Olzenak-McGuire said when the guidelines were issued.
The return of high-risk sports has been controversial in the county, including a protest outside the Section 10 office in Canton, where athletes called on districts to “let them play.” Initially, Section 10 school districts were not going to hold basketball and hockey seasons. After pressure from student athletes, their parents and coaches, school boards pivoted in favor of holding shortened seasons.
Some precautions are being taken such as limiting the amount of time athletes are in buses and keeping spectators out of schools, but details are still being panned out.
The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators passed a resolution calling on districts to allow sports and though they have no direct power over the matter, schools did decide to move forward with some high-risk sports.
In recent weeks, schools began preparing their required sports safety plans. Some sought to mandate testing as part of them.
Throughout the pandemic, St. Lawrence County Public Health has emphasized the importance of testing and tracking the disease. The department releases the daily number of new positive cases, total cumulative cases, deaths, hospitalizations and locations of new cases by town.
Throughout the school year many districts have been forced to pivot to temporary remote learning due to exposures by staff and students. Schools have also struggled to maintain adequate numbers of bus drivers due to exposures.
One of the points of debate regarding the decision to allow sports is the mental health of student athletes, though some have questioned if allowing high-risk sports at schools could have an impact on the mental health of students who do not participate in sports, but could be impacted by closures stemming from athletic contests.