Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Strict COVID-19 Testing Can Keep Extracurriculars Going, CDC Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 21, 2021 3 min read
Herriman cheerleaders carry the American flag before the start of a high school football game against Davis, on Aug. 13, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. Utah went forward with high school football this fall despite concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that led other states and many college football conferences to postpone games in hopes of instead playing in the spring.

Utah’s aggressive COVID-19 testing programs may have helped the Beehive State preserve its extracurricular activities and in-person classes during pandemic surges last fall.

A study released on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found Utah’s Test-to-Play program allowed high schools to hold 95 percent of their scheduled winter sports competitions. Moreover, the state’s Test-to-Stay program, modeled on the extracurriculars testing but focused on who gets to attend in-person classes during the regular school day, helped prevent nearly 110,000 student-days of lost in-person instruction due to pandemic quarantines or closures.

Under Utah’s Test-to-Play program, launched in November, students, teachers, and staff can participate in extracurricular activities, including sports and clubs, only if they:

  • test negative for COVID-19 at least once every 14 days;
  • have no symptoms of COVID-19; and
  • are not in isolation or quarantine for exposure to someone who has tested positive for the virus.

In January, the state added the Test-to-Stay protocol, which allowed a school experiencing an outbreak as defined by the state to conduct schoolwide rapid COVID-19 testing instead of moving to remote learning. For both programs, the state provided free rapid testing kits.

Researchers found 127 of the state’s 193 high schools participated in the extracurricular testing program, and 13 high schools participated in the outbreak testing program. (Sixteen schools with outbreaks chose instead to move to remote instruction.) Overall, only 3.2 percent of the more than 59,500 students tested through both programs from November 2020 through the following March proved to have the coronavirus.

The findings could provide an option for school leaders hoping to bring back sports and clubs safely as their students return to in-person learning. Extracurricular activities—and particularly close-contact sports—have been a source of concern for epidemiologists because students are more likely to be breathing heavily close to one another.

One study in the journal Science last month found that eliminating extracurricular activities was one of the school mitigation practices associated with the biggest drop in the risk of children bringing the virus home to family members. Yet barring extracurricular activities was one of the least popular methods among schools to reduce the spread of the pandemic, according to lead author Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. H,e considered it one of the “more disruptive” practices and one that schools are likely to lift as soon as possible once community infection rates drop.

In an analysis of the 2020-21 high school winter sports season, Nate Perry of the National Federation of State High School Associations said states have by and large committed to keeping as many school sports seasons as possible, though nearly all were delayed by autumn surges in COVID-19 cases. As of May 10, 45 state associations had completed a boys’ or girls’ season in basketball, which the NFSHSA considers a “moderate” COVID-19 transmission risk. Moreover, 35 state associations had completed a wrestling season, which the group considers a “high” risk.

Line graph showing the incidence of COVID-19 in 5 through 17 year olds before and after Utah Began Testing

Study builds evidence for masking, ventilation

The CDC on Friday also released a study of Georgia elementary schools which adds to the growing evidence of the importance of adult masking and indoor air-quality improvements in reducing the spread of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers found the rates of COVID-19 cases from November to December 2020 (before vaccines became widely available for teachers) were 37 percent lower in schools that required their teachers and staff to wear face masks, and 39 percent lower in schools that improved their ventilation systems.

In particular, while interventions that diluted air—for example, opening doors and windows or using fans—were associated with 35 percent fewer coronavirus cases, schools using those in combination with systems to filter virus and other particles from the air saw 48 percent lower COVID-19 rates.

A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Can Schools Keep Extracurriculars Going in the Pandemic?

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