ANN ARBOR – Nearly 25 percent of parents in the U.S. said their children and teens participated in sports teams during the fall or winter months, according to the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.
Sports during the coronavirus pandemic look dramatically different than in years past. From temperature checks to mask wearing during play and few in-person spectators, young athletes have had to adapt to this new normal.
Although the majority of parents ranked their child’s sports organization highly for communicating safety protocols, one in four rated their child’s team or league’s enforcement of health and safety precautions as “fair” or “poor.”
“As kids return to playing sports, it’s critical that teams and facilities enforce COVID guidelines to keep players, coaches and families as safe as possible and to reduce community spread,” poll co-director Sarah Clark said in a news release. “This is especially important as we have seen recent COVID-19 outbreaks among youth sports teams.”
“While most families seem confident in their local organization’s safety measures, our report suggests that ensuring compliance with COVID-19 protocols has also been challenging.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state health department have asked asked residents to voluntarily follow some COVID-19 restrictions, including suspending sports and returning to virtual learning.
The report, which represents a national sample of parents, comes at a time when health experts are suggesting that organized sports may be driving COVID-19 cases in children.
Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has said that many of the cases seen in schools often trace back to team sports. Local health departments in various states have also found youth sports to be sources of outbreaks while contact tracing.
Here in Michigan, which is experiencing the worst surge of COVID cases in the country, experts have said that outbreaks in groups of young people are more often linked to extracurricular activities than classroom exposure. Additionally, socializing with others before and after sports activities could be helping to drive transmission.
Many schools nationwide have paused sports and returned to virtual learning in order to help curb the spread.
Between August 2020 and January 2021, Mott received responses from 1,630 parents with children ages 6-18.
The poll found that older children ages 12-18 are participating in sports at a slightly higher rate than children ages 6-11. One in three parents whose child was not participating in sports said that their child’s team was canceled, while one in four said they wouldn’t allow their child to play a team sport due to safety concerns over COVID-19.
Overall, the majority of parents responded that their child’s school or sports league provided clear communication, listened to their concerns about COVID-19 and treated children fairly.
More than 90% of parents whose children participated in group sports said they were given information about social distancing and mask rules for players and spectators by their child’s school or sports league.
Four out of five parents were also given information about protocols when a player is exposed to the virus and when a child who contracted COVID-19 can return to play.
However, rules on testing protocols tended to be less clear, with 59 percent of parents saying they had to reach out to team leaders about when players should undergo COVID testing.
“Parents largely felt that sports officials successfully communicated about most of their new COVID-19 policies,” Clark said in a statement. “Communication was notably lower around COVID-19 testing. It’s unclear if the lack of information was an oversight or if schools and leagues didn’t have clear guidelines from public health officials.
“As more youth sports resume, our poll suggests that parents will need further direction on whether, when and where their child should get tested. This is particularly important as cases are rising among younger people.”
Another key factor for parents was when a child can return to practice after contracting COVID-19. Half of the parents said they would wait to have their child cleared by a doctor, while 40 percent said they would follow team or league guidelines on how many days a child must remain home before returning to sports activity.
Five percent of parents responded that they would have their child return once they felt well enough.
“If parents rely solely on league guidelines to determine when it’s safe for their child to return to sports activity, they may overlook signs that the child is not fully recovered. It’s important that parents involve their child’s doctor for specific guidance on resuming sports activity,” Clark said in a statement.
Overall, parents of younger children were more likely to wait the specified number of days, and parents of teens were less likely to have a doctor clear their child.
Clark also said that beyond following league or school policies, parents should reinforce common sense practices like not sharing food or water and keeping hands sanitized during breaks. She said parents should remember to wear masks and maintain proper social distancing while attending games.
“We know sports provide physical and social health benefits for children and teens and are a valuable part of many students’ school experience,” Clark said in a release.
“Unlike many youth activities that have switched to a remote format to meet social distancing guidelines, sports can’t go virtual. It’s important that both sports officials and families closely adhere to guidelines that minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission during practices and competitions.”