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DeKalb Schools Taking Precautions to Ensure Safe Sports Seasons

tucker-footballTens of thousands of students and parents across the DeKalb County School District have nearly completed their fall semester of virtual learning. That means hundreds of Zoom calls, virtual projects, tech help and messages to teachers. Needless to say, it’s been a stressful time for all parties involved.

One of the bright spots amid the malaise has been sports. While safety concerns have brought out some naysayers, it is undeniable that sports have been an escape of sorts from the realities of the pandemic. On a large scale, we’ve seen a World Series, The Masters, college and professional football all enjoy varying levels of success this fall. Here locally, high school sports have presented a way for young people to get out, get some exercise and keep the competitive juices flowing.

“I know coaches want to win state championships and players do and parents and communities [do],” said DeKalb County Executive Director of Athletics James Jackson, “but I think that we win every day that we play a game and that we have practice.”

Jackson, who coached track and football, as well as served as Tucker High School’s principal until 2017, said it took some finagling to get fall sports going. As with the fall, winter sports are going to be delayed in starting, DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris announced last month. She cited the rate of COVID cases rising in recent weeks. It was a disappointing trend considering that in October the cases had dropped to levels where the school district was almost ready to send teachers back to their classrooms.

tucker-basketball“We’re just trying to see how the numbers are going,” Jackson said, crediting Watson-Harris for her decisive leadership since taking over during the pandemic. “The numbers in DeKalb…it’s getting pretty bad right now with the [case] spikes and we want to make sure we put our kids in the best position where it’s safe.”

When looking at extracurricular activities like sports, there are challenges in starting a new season. From a practical perspective, Jackson said, they’ve operated at 10 percent fan capacity for football games. But for winter sports, which are played indoors, there may not be fans allowed at all.

“All the sports were challenging because the safety of the student athletes and the coaches come first,” Jackson explained. “We don’t test like the NFL or colleges, so we had to really rely on the students to be up-front [and] honest with the questionnaires and also with the temp checks.”

As fall sports are wrapping up and winter sports are about to get started, legions of baseball, soccer and track parents are wondering about the future of spring sports. These are groups that had their seasons abruptly cut short in 2020 and want to get back out on the field in 2021.

tucker-wrestling“We’re starting to put together plans for spring 2021,” Jackson acknowledged. “We’ve got the schedules almost done. We’re looking at the same safety protocols that we’ve done with fall and also winter sports and we’re looking at [COVID] numbers. Hopefully, we can get some relief. Hopefully, this virus can recede a little bit going into the springtime of the year. We’re just taking it one day at a time, step by step, and developing as many safety protocols as we can for the student-athletes and the coaches.”

While the main priority has to be safety, school leaders are wrestling with the same dilemma, whether it’s sending students back to class or allowing them to play sports. Jackson and his team at the district office know that a lot rides on the decisions they’re having to make and they’re not making those decisions lightly.
“Just to get the young people on the field, the chance to maybe get a scholarship,” he explained. “Maybe to get that release because you look at the mental health picture and there’s a lot of kids who are suffering from depression because they can’t go to school, then they can’t play sports. This is an outlet for them.”

It’s an outlet that could have consequences. DeKalb County and school districts across Georgia have had to cancel games and halt practices because of COVID fears. But as they continue forward, they’re banking on the advice of medical experts, hoping that the precautions being taken can help avoid the spread. It’s a calculated risk aimed at helping these young men and women, to use Jackson’s words, celebrate a win every day.

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