COVID-19 and Youth Sports: Safety and Liability Issues
Over the past few months, many youth sports programs, both scholastic and otherwise, have resumed operations in a world still overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As information on the impact of the virus continues to evolve and change, it is essential that these programs continue to monitor the latest COVID-19 studies and guidance in order to update their own policies and procedures.
The body of scientific COVID-19 literature as it relates to children has been growing. For example, Harvard Medical School researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital (“MGH”) recently completed the most comprehensive study to date of COVID-19 and pediatric patients. Of the 192 subjects aged 0-22 that were monitored, 49 tested positive for COVID-19 while an additional 18 had late onset COVID-19 illness, proving that children are not immune to COVID-19. In fact, researchers found that these children had a high viral load even if they were asymptomatic. These levels were higher than hospitalized adult COVID-19 patients. Although children who test positive for COVID-19 are not as likely to become as seriously ill as adults, the concern is that asymptomatic carriers or carriers with few symptoms can spread the infection to others who may be more susceptible.
New Athletic Standards
With the new academic year starting, K-12 schools must consider whether and how to resume student athletics. Medical and sports professionals all over the country are working to set appropriate standards for practice and competition that reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently partnered to evaluate the state’s youth and high school sports. Out of this collaboration, sports were grouped by risk, with sports like tennis and golf considered low risk, baseball and soccer as moderate risk, and football, basketball and cheerleading as higher risk. Based on this tiered system, the group re-arranged the sports by season, moving higher-risk sports into a floating season not to be played until February-April 2021. It also set safety Modifications and Guidelines by sport, which can be accessed here.
On the other coast, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) has also developed a comprehensive plan for the return on student athletics. Much like the MIAA, the CIF has also grouped youth sports by risk and delayed the start of all fall games and competitions to December 2020. Practices and conditioning are currently permitted in the state. However, there is a three-phase approach that must be followed so that the resumption of athletics is as gradual and safe as possible.
In our previous article, we discussed the importance of following all applicable laws and governmental guidelines when re-opening a youth sports program. Because COVID-19 laws and guidelines are frequently revised, both as knowledge about the disease improves and as transmission continues to ebb and flow throughout the country, policies and procedures should be regularly checked to make sure they are still operationally in compliance. When Massachusetts transitioned from Phase II into Phase III of its re-opening process, the state had to readjust some of its guidelines as transmission rates increased in late July. Likewise, the state of California introduced a new tier system at the county level that governs both business and school reopenings after it was criticized for reopening business too hastily in June, causing a spike in COVID infections and deaths.
It is also crucial that sports program administrators be vigilant in identifying and considering new COVID-19 standards as they are released by national and/or regional organizations governing those sports. While standards like those issued by the MIAA and CIF do not directly apply to private youth sport programs, they are typically the product of collaboration of experts from various disciplines and should be at least considered in constructing policies and procedures. An organization’s failure to take into consideration all publicly available information when creating and maintaining its policies and procedures may not only lead to litigation, but loss of business.
Researchers from the MGH study recommend instituting infection control measures instead of just relying on body temperature and symptom checks. This includes social distancing, limiting large groups, universal mask use and handwashing. Children should be routinely checked, and the results timely reported. And it continues to be important to follow all organizational policies. If guidance is conflicting, or if there is no clear answer on what standard to adopt or how to comply with the law, consider consulting with a scientific or legal expert for advice.
It is easy to become complacent or less diligent about following the procedures and policies if your organization continues to be COVID-free, but public health experts are cautioning that this is not the time to relax standards. As Dr. Jha, the Director of the Global Health Institute, recently said, “We are only at the ‘top of the fourth’ inning of a nine-inning baseball game.” According to Dr. Jha, under the most optimistic timeline, our current pandemic is not even halfway over; loosening restrictions appears unwise at this moment, where a positive case could lead to a complete shutdown of programs, and perhaps even your organization being sued.