Comment: If students are on field they can be back in class

Our state’s different covid standards for school athletics and classroom instruction are puzzling.

By Keri D. Ingraham / For The Herald

This year’s March Madness basketball championships featured an updated version of a longstanding NCAA television commercial conveying a forgotten truth to sports enthusiasts: “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and almost all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.”

The commercial underscores an important fact: Only about 2 percent of college athletes make it to the professional level in their sport. Despite this reality, up to 75 percent of college athletes believe they will be within that 2 percent.

A similar misperception prevails at the middle and high school levels. Even the youngest of youth sports, parents and players are driven by a false promise of competing at the collegiate level. Depending on the sport, only 3 percent to 9 percent of all high school athletes will compete in NCAA Division I, II or III college sports; and many college athletes do not receive athletic scholarships (Division III even prohibits them). And only 1 percent to 3 percent of high school athletes make it Division I.

As a former college athlete and state championship-winning high school coach — and lifelong sports fan — I recognize the tremendous role athletics can play in one’s life. Positive character development and unforgettable memories can be made. But the NCAA’s commercial provides a needed reality check: The majority of today’s students will go pro in something other than sports. In essence, the balance of life and one’s livelihood will be dependent on the student part of the popular phrase, student-athlete.

Spanning more than a year, teacher unions had largely refused to fully reopen schools for in-person learning, asserting it wasn’t safe for their members. The refusal came despite private schools reopening last fall, despite public schools’ receiving a series of massive additional federal funding, despite the overwhelming medical evidence that schools could operate safely when fully open, and despite vaccination privileges for teachers above other working groups.

Mid-March, at the one-year mark of school closures, Gov. Jay Inslee gave up on teacher unions, sending teachers back to work. He issued an executive order requiring public schools to offer K-12 students at least 30 percent of pre-pandemic in-person instruction hours by April 19. The extremely low bar set by Inslee was intended to avoid an all-out war with union leaders.

High school athletics, on the other hand, received very different treatment. On Jan. 5, Inslee and the state Department of Health released guidelines giving the green light for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to resume sports in all nine athletic districts within the state. The guidelines explicitly disconnected in-person academics and athletics: “It is not mandated that schools return to in-person learning before taking part in extracurricular activities.”

While teacher unions have deemed in-person classroom instruction extremely unsafe, particularly for employees and middle and high school students, athletic teams for these same students — including even contact sports — have returned to play under their watchful eye without a second thought.

Evidently, coaches, many of whom are classroom teachers, and all of which are district employees, couldn’t be expected to face the risks of teaching academics in a socially distanced, controlled classroom environment, equipped with personal protective equipment, and sanitized surfaces. Yet these same district employees can huddle up with the same students in close proximity, share athletic balls and equipment without sanitization between touches, while breathing heavily on one another (in some cases without face masks depending on the sport and whether played inside or out). Not only that, but participation includes traveling to other schools for competitions.

The misplaced priorities and illogical policies are alarming. It’s time for education leaders, including teacher unions, to stop blocking the student part of student-athlete. It’s long overdue for all schools statewide to once again serve and support students with full-time, in-person learning options. That should be quickly followed by schools implementing safe avenues for reinstating athletics, arts and social activities, which are all of great importance to our students, their families, and our communities.

Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a fellow of Discovery Institute and director of the institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.

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