Vermont winter sports guidance says unvaccinated athletes can play in games

  • Woodstock girls hockey coach Ian Coates describes a drill to his team on the first practice of the season at Union Arena in Woodstock, Vt., Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Published: 10/26/2021 9:25:14 PM
Modified: 10/26/2021 9:25:19 PM

Vaccinated school children should be able to fully participate in winter sports in the coming months, though unvaccinated children would face more restrictions under Vermont guidance that officials discussed at a news conference Tuesday.

Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said the state would “ask” student-athletes to get vaccinated. Vaccinated students should be able to avoid quarantine under the advisory guidance it planned to issue later in the day, she said.

The guidance, like all guidance issued to schools in recent months, is a nonbinding recommendation. It applies to sports such as basketball, bowling, competitive cheer, dance, gymnastics, hockey, indoor track and wrestling, Moore said. The agency plans to send its guidance to recreational youth leagues as well.

Vermont’s data shows that high school winter sports for the 2020-21 school year were responsible for 36% of outbreaks in K-12 schools, leading to many hundreds of lost school days — officials estimate somewhere between about 2,200 and 4,500 days in total.

But Moore said the vaccine recommendation was a “key difference” this school year, particularly in high schools where most students are eligible for the vaccine.

She said younger student-athletes in elementary and middle schools would “need to be cautious,” but the agency believes this is a “balanced approach” that takes into account “the emotional and health benefits that sports provides to many young people, while at the same time being protective of current conditions on the ground.”

The agency recommends participants and coaches in most sports remain masked regardless of vaccination status. Exceptions apply to athletes in a few sports — running, wrestling, cheer and dance — where masking could be unsafe, she said, because a mask could slip over an athlete’s eyes during movement. Schools should test unvaccinated students in those sports at least weekly, she said.

Schools can allow spectators, Moore said, although the agency recommends they remain masked.

The state’s guidance says vaccinated children do not need to quarantine after exposure, meaning they can continue to participate in sports. Moore said “test-to-stay,” which tests unvaccinated children after an exposure, would allow them to attend practices but not interscholastic games or competitions.

The agency has shipped test-to-stay kits to 19 supervisory unions and 12 independent schools as of Tuesday, said Agency of Education Secretary Dan French. Those kits are not just for sports — they could be used after a Covid case is reported in a classroom to prevent the class from having to stay home.

Dan Shepardson, the activities director at Champlain Valley Union High School, said the new guidance was not a significant departure from the status quo. He expects Champlain Valley Union, which he said has a roughly 90% student vaccination rate, will follow all of the Agency’s recommendations.

“I think it’s safe for kids to be playing sports,” he said. “Wearing masks indoors is an irritant for some people. Sure it is. But it keeps people safe and it lets kids play.”

Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, welcomed the guidance but said he hoped it would be stronger.

“We wish that it was a little more directive, especially in regards to spectators,” he said. “But we understand that they feel it’s a local decision.”

Allowing schools to issue their own requirements about spectators and masks, he said, could lead to a patchwork of different rules at sporting events across the state.

“By it not being a mandate, it makes it a lot tougher for local school officials,” Nichols said. “And that’s my big worry: that some schools will choose different avenues, and it’s going to cause turmoil in their communities.”

“It just would be a lot simpler if it was just, ‘This is how it is,’ ” he said.

Vermont reported 131 cases among students and staff in the past week, according to data from the Department of Health. The department reports only cases that were infectious while in a school setting. In total, schools have reported at least 1,125 cases so far this school year.

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