To call it counterintuitive would be an understatement. As COVID cases surge and the state rolls back its reopening, Massachusetts high-school students are poised to resume playing sports like basketball and hockey — inside.
That’s left many parents, including me, wrestling with what could be a very high-stakes decision.
For the past few months, our family has been as conservative as possible when it comes to COVID risk. We’ve worn masks everywhere, avoided dining in restaurants, and gotten our groceries delivered or via curbside pickup rather than going into the store.
But basketball is my daughter Harriet’s favorite sport. Her school, Swampscott High, hasn’t ruled out playing this winter. (This week, the school committee postponed the season indefinitely, but didn’t cancel it outright.) And if there is a season, she wants to be a part of it.
“If it were up to me, I would go right back to playing basketball — no hesitation, no questions asked,” she told me this week. “Because although I’m not, like, this crazy superstar basketball player on the court, it’s a big part of my life, and I enjoy it.”
New guidelines from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association are supposed to make basketball safer during the pandemic. They include rules changes like no jump balls, fewer players rebounding free throws, and a six-foot buffer when a defender guards an inbounds pass.
But those proposed changes also drive home the fact that, at its core, basketball is the opposite of socially distant.
What’s more, right now, the people who know the most about COVID say we should be reducing or eliminating indoor activity, not expanding it.
“Indoor activities where you bring people close together, where you have potentially ventilation issues, you’re going to have the risk of exposure,” said John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and the chief information officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “You start adding those probability events between teams that can come together, there’s a good chance you might have an exposure.”
The game itself is a transmission risk, Brownstein adds — but so is everything that comes with it.
“Being on the bench, the congregation of parents, the activities that start to pile up,” he said. “Now, it becomes a sort of balance of risk and benefit.”
For some families, though, that calculus isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
Niya Morgen used to play with my daughter, but now she’s on different track. She was Swampscott’s starting point guard as a freshman. She hopes to get a scholarship from a Division I school. And she works incredibly hard on her game, spending more than 20 hours a week on the court.
“I go to group workouts every day,” she said. “On my own, I do more moving drills, and I pretend as if there’s a defender in front of me. … Or I just get shots up, lots of shots, because since I’m small, I need to be able to shoot the ball well.”
Beyond that commitment, Johannah Morgen, one of Niya’s moms, says there’s another big factor involved in the family’s thought process: the effect that losing basketball last spring, when sweeping COVID restrictions first went into effect, had on her daughter.
“When Niya was suddenly excluded from all her activities, she was miserable,” Johannah Morgen said. “And my enthusiastic support for her as a basketball player has a lot less to do with her potential as a college player — that’s her passion, and I’m happy to support it — and a lot more to do with her general wellbeing. For her to be in a good spot, physically, emotionally, she needs basketball.”
That’s why, if there is a season, Niya’s parents have decided that she’ll be on the court.
“We’re in the fortunate position that no one in our family is high risk, and we can keep our circle pretty constrained outside of her athletics,” Johannah Morgen said. “And so we made the choice. We’re not deluding ourselves that there’s no risk, but it’s a level that we’re willing to accept for her to be able to pursue something that is such an intrinsic part of who she is.
Some communities are taking that choice out of parents’ hands — including Lynn, which borders Swampscott to the south and just canceled winter sports.
Right now, COVID is hitting Lynn harder than Swampscott. In the state of Massachusetts’ most recent weekly COVID report, Lynn’s two-week average daily incidence rate was 67.6, compared to 36.7 for Swampscott, and the two-week positivity rate per test was 10.23 percent, compared to Swampscott’s 2.58 percent. While Swampscott’s schools are currently hybrid, Lynn’s are remote.
But Antonio Anderson, the boys’ basketball coach at perennial powerhouse Lynn English, warned during a recent protest at Lynn City Hall that nixing winter sports could have negative long-term consequences for some students.
“This is my hometown, and playing sports here is what got me out,” said Anderson, who played in college and the NBA, according to the Daily Item.
“There were a lot of different routes I could’ve taken in life, but playing winter sports allowed me to get a free education at the University of Memphis, get a degree, play professional basketball and then come back to my city and be a positive role model for some of these kids,” he added. “[That’s] why this is so important for these kids. It’s more than just sports.”
Brownstein, the epidemiologist at Boston’s Children, cites yet another factor he thinks should be considered: In communities where students are still learning in the classroom, opting out of sports could help keep them there.
“We’ve seen this happen where a team will play another team, and one kid turns up positive,” he said. “All those other kids end up in quarantine and missing in-person learning, and that’s a real risk.”
Still, for now, the state isn’t putting indoor winter sports on its list of things not to do.
Asked if Gov. Charlie Baker thinks it’s safe for winter sports to proceed, a spokesperson replied that guidelines for Phase III, Step 2 of the state’s reopening still apply — even though Baker recently announced that the state is rolling back to Phase III, Step 1.
Those guidelines describe basketball and hockey as “higher-risk” sports that involve “intermittent close proximity or moderate contact,” and state that practices and games are permissible as long as certain criteria are met, including mandatory masking.
Update: The Baker Administration announced Friday that modified Phase III, Step 1 guidelines for youth and adult sports will take effect Monday, when high-school basketball, gymnastics, ice hockey, alpine and Nordic skiing, and swimming and diving are scheduled to begin. They reduce indoor capacity and spectator limits from Phase III, Step 2.
Adam Reilly is a reporter at GBH-TV’s Greater Boston.