By Dave Ongie, News Editor
After a lengthy discussion, the Johnson City Board of Education voted Monday night to allow contact sports to carry on as scheduled at Science Hill High School and Liberty Bell Middle School. The decision aligns Johnson City Schools with Washington County, which made the decision a week prior to allow football and girls’ soccer teams to begin competing.
Athletes and their parents turned out in full force on Monday advocating for the fall season to begin as scheduled, and many of them spoke prior to the board’s vote. When the board began discussing the topic, board member Paula Treece was among those recommending that sports be allowed to start as scheduled. Treece cited CDC data that showed increased risk of mental health issues among teenagers during the pandemic and said athletes and their parents should be given the choice to participate.
However, board chair Tim Belisle was particularly critical of resuming contact sports while students in the system were starting the school year with virtual learning due to the spread of COVID-19.
“I just don’t know it’s responsible for us to do at this point,” Belisle said, noting that college programs and conference around the country have made the decision to cancel their fall sports seasons due to COVID-19.
Despite Belisle’s opposition, a motion passed that allowed football and girls’ soccer to be played along with all the other fall sports at Science Hill and Liberty Bell provided athletes signed a pledge to wear masks and socially distance.
The groundwork for Monday’s decision was laid during a special called Board of Education meeting last Wednesday, which was convened in order to gather information from Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner on the schools’ plans and procedures for football and girls’ soccer to be played this fall.
Turner gave an overview of the requirements put in place by the TSSAA, which includes temperature checks for athletes before each event and strict social distancing and cleaning measures geared toward ensuring spectators can attend games safely.
One area not addressed in the TSSAA’s policies, however, is regular testing of athletes. At the college and pro level, athletes are tested regularly in order to reduce the chances of a COVID-19 outbreak. But when board vice-chair Kathy Hall asked Turner last Wednesday whether athletes at Science Hill were tested regularly, he said the cost of regular testing made it impossible.
“We don’t have that capability as a high school athletic program,” Turner said. “There are a lot of colleges that are doing that, but right now we’re just being as safe as we can. We’re telling them to take personal responsibility.”
Despite a lack of regular testing, Turner said Science Hill has shown the ability to limit the spread of COVID-19. He said the school’s athletic programs have already seen five positive tests, and each time a quick response has kept the virus from spreading.
“We’ve got a process in place, and we’ve been overly cautious when that has happened,” Turner told the board, adding that one team’s activities were shut down completely for 14 days after a positive test. “I know that health and safety are first, but these kids and families know the risk. It’s a choice, and I guarantee you they are all willing to take that risk.”
The size of the crowds allowed to attend fall sports events, particularly football, was a major focus for board members as they arrived at their decision. The concern about COVID-19 spreading amongst spectators compelled Hall to make a motion at Monday’s meeting to allow fall sports to proceed provided only immediate family members of the athletes be allowed to attend until the infection numbers drop considerably, but the motion did not get a second.
During a recent phone call, Turner told the News & Neighbor he’s been working tirelessly to come up with a plan to allow fans to safely watch the games. Measures taken include issuing tickets with specific seat numbers to promote social distancing, modifying the preparation and sale of items from the concession stands and enhancing the cleaning process, especially in the restrooms.
With those measures in place, Turner said he was hopeful Science Hill could accommodate between 3,000 and 4,000 fans for home games, which he says is vital to the survival of the school’s athletic department.
“If we could get that many people, and we feel like that is a safe amount, we could survive financially,” Turner said. “If we could get anywhere close to that, I think we could survive this year.”
Science Hill’s football team is scheduled to open the season on Aug. 21 on the road against Elizabethton.