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APS decision to pause sports and activities causes confusion, backlash

A sign in support of Arlington athletes playing amid Omicron concerns outside Arlington Public School headquarter (courtesy photo)

(Updated 2:35 p.m.) Some parents and students are pushing Arlington Public Schools to reverse its decision to temporarily halt sports and other extracurricular activities due to COVID-19.

After the snow clears, the majority of APS students will return to their classrooms for in-person learning, but their sports practices and games, band and choir classes and club meetings will be “paused” until Friday, Jan. 14.

APS announced its decision to cancel two weeks of extracurricular activities and prioritize in-person learning in response to the surge in new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. Some families are speaking out about the impact this will have on students and are pressuring APS to reinstate extracurriculars, coaches are privately dismayed, and more than 1,500 people have signed a petition to resume sports and activities.

“We aren’t going to be able to practice for the upcoming meets, which means our risk of injury is pretty high — especially for gymnasts who are doing skills that require intense training and repetition on specialized equipment,” says Grace Chen, a senior varsity gymnast. “As a senior, it is especially disappointing because now the rest of the season could be a disaster. We are hoping to compete at States again for the fourth consecutive year.”

There was a similar outcry in November 2020, when APS decided not to participate in winter sports while most students were virtual. Within four days it reversed course, following the groundswell of support for sports and conversations with neighboring school systems.

Back then, parent Mark Weiser had a dozen “Let them play!” signs made. He almost threw them away last summer but decided to keep them. Now, they’re back up in yards around town.

“I didn’t want to have to use them,” he said.

Weiser says the decision is extreme. APS requires that student athletes be vaccinated or submit to daily Covid testing, and he says his son’s fully vaccinated team is also undergoing daily testing. Fairfax County Public Schools, which also requires vaccinations or negative tests, has not paused sports, he adds.

“For Arlington to go out on an island and do this by themselves is beyond frustrating,” he said. “We have no indication these games will be made up.”

Others say the risk for transmission will remain even with this decision, as kids will continue playing for club teams and find ways to play or practice together outside of school.

Weiser said parents couldn’t get more answers for four days after the news due to the holiday weekend and storm.

“There was no one to talk to,” he said on Monday. “Offices were closed Thursday through Sunday, and there’s snow today.”

He says some families intend to speak at the School Board meeting this Thursday, during which the newly-elected Mary Kadera will be sworn in.

The new guidance needs explaining, says the County Council of PTAs. President Claire Noakes says parents want more details on how the decision was made and how it will be implemented for non-athletic activities.

“[T]he announcement on pausing extracurricular activities and athletics lacked clarity about how it would be implemented for band and choir classes, as well as the factors considered and how those factors were weighed,” she said. “Parents take factors like their child’s mental health, the college admissions process, or the fact that these programs are structured (often with routine Covid testing) into consideration. We would appreciate further clarity on the decision-making and whether alternative mitigating measures were considered.”

But APS says it’s following Virginia Department of Health guidance, initially issued in March 2021 and updated last October, that tells schools to prioritize in-person learning over extracurriculars when community transmission is high, since these activities pose greater transmission risks than classroom learning.

“The pause to APS athletics and activities is not an easy decision and aligns with VHD’s guidance to prioritize in-person instruction,” APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said. “The determination to suspend programs for a brief period of time is made with the safety and health of all stakeholders involved. APS will continue to make protocols in the best interest of the health and well-being of our students, staff, and community.”

APS has communicated its decision with the Virginia High School League, the state governing body for high school sports, and APS teams will not be penalized for missed events, he said.

“Given the surge in cases, we are assessing the timeline for the adoption of the revised guidelines and will communicate updates with the community when available,” he said.

The Sun Gazette notes that the end of the pause coincides with inauguration weekend for Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, who has said he won’t require mask mandates or support returns to virtual learning.

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