Up to 45 million kids in the United States participate in some kind of organized sports, and for many of them, that participation is…everything. Sports are fun, they can be good for developing brains and bodies, and they can teach kids about hard work, resiliency and emotional control.
Unfortunately, youth sports have so far been another casualty of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and many families are wondering what comes next. For the high school student who has practiced for decades but won’t get that final season, or the elementary schooler who counts on her teammates as an emotional lifeline, not being able to play is a very, very big deal.
So HuffPost Parents spoke to several experts about what to expect in the upcoming year, as well as what parents who are weighing resuming their kids’ lessons or putting them back on teams (if that’s an option) should keep in mind as they look ahead.
A lot of seasons are simply going to be canceled.
When it comes to youth sports and the transmission of COVID-19, “we don’t have a lot of data,” said Dr. Ibukun Akinboyo, an assistant professor in the pediatrics department at Duke University School of Medicine.
Even so, the American Academy of Pediatrics put out new guidance on returning to sports during the pandemic, emphasizing that “local disease activity” must inform whether classes and leagues resume this fall and beyond.
And given that COVID-19 cases and deaths are continuing to increase across much of the U.S. and that several large school districts have already announced plans to start the year remotely, many seasons are simply going to be called off.
For example, where Akinboyo is located in North Carolina, “a lot of programs have deferred any youth activities for another three to four months, and they will reconsider in October and November,” she said.
The professor is hopeful that in a few months’ time, local transmission will have declined more data on the risk of COVID transmission and children will be available to researchers and families.
Indoors vs. outdoors matters. So does the level of contact.
While there isn’t strong data on how youth sports contribute to the spread of coronavirus, experts say it is important to stick to the basics.
Outdoor sports are likely safer than indoor sports, given that the coronavirus can spread through tiny aerosol droplets that linger in the air for quite some time.
Sports that don’t require a lot of physical contact and allow players to maintain some level of distance are safer than those that don’t.
Parents and other spectators with high-risk health conditions should strongly consider not attending indoor events or events held outdoors where appropriate social distancing cannot be maintained. The American Academy of Pediatrics
“High contact sports like wrestling, football, basketball — sports where there’s a lot of hand-to-hand and direct body contact — obviously, with a disease that’s spread through close person-to-person transmission, those are higher-risk scenarios,” said Dr. Sandra Kesh, an infectious disease specialist with Westmed Medical Group.
Some programs might consider shortened practices and games, given that the duration of exposure to COVID-19 increases the risk of transmission, Akinboyo said.
How those practices and games are structured matters, too. This year, coaches should place a much greater emphasis on drills and physical conditioning than on contact activities, the AAP says. But for older kids, that conditioning shouldn’t necessarily come in the weight room. Poorly ventilated small spaces should absolutely be avoided when possible.
You may not be sitting on the sidelines.
Used to spending your weekends sitting on the sidelines, watching your kiddo practice or play? Maybe not this season. Or next. Parents should follow all local rules on wearing face coverings and maintaining distance, and parents with disabilities should avoid spectatorship altogether.
“Parents and other spectators with high-risk health conditions should strongly consider not attending indoor events or events held outdoors where appropriate social distancing cannot be maintained,” the AAP advises.
Schools, programs and facilities will likely think very carefully about banning anyone who isn’t directly needed for a game or practice from being on site, Akinboyo said, adding that they should be careful about the number of people who congregate together in an enclosed space.
Wearing masks could play a role.
In addition to promoting social distancing when possible and making sure that equipment, spaces and participants’ hands are properly washed, programs should consider having kids wear masks, the AAP says.
Certainly, all athletes should wear them when they’re sitting on the sidelines, the group says. But they should also be worn when kids are engaged in “non-vigorous” physical activity and can’t maintain enough distance. (Just another reason why it’s important to help your child practice mask-wearing as soon as possible.)
Travel may be off the table — for now.
“Any time there is mixing of teams from different towns or communities, that will increase the risk of spread,” said Dr. Margaret Aldrich, director of pediatric infection control with Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.
Travel is obviously a huge aspect of many youth sports teams. But travel seasons could be canceled, and schools that do reopen for in-person instruction and allow their teams to come back may reconsider actually traveling to other districts for games, races and competitions.
Programs will have varying approaches to all of these risk or harm reduction strategies, and parents will then have to decide what they’re comfortable with, weighing the risk of COVID-19 against the benefits of sports. Above all, families should make these decisions carefully and deliberately.
“Don’t be afraid of asking questions, and take a deep breath,” Kesh said. “We’re all in this for the long haul, and there is a way to do this safely. But it is going to take lots of communication with the people who are organizing these programs, and with lots of education of the kids to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.