This is my second year running cross country in the upper school, and more than anything else, I love the practices.
I’m not kidding. I love the hard work. I love the true, selfless brotherhood displayed during practice. I love how, no matter how bad I feel during the school day, my attitude always transforms after we finish running.
I love everything about the sport, and the part of me that loves cross country sincerely wants all other fall sports to continue their run at Haverford and have a great season. But it doesn’t matter what I want. What matters is that we are in the middle of a worsening pandemic and we need to be safe. As long as fall sports continue to halfheartedly employ COVID restrictions, I will continue to speak out against the flagrant misuse of privilege the program currently embodies.
It seems that in every other facet of school life, Haverford goes above and beyond COVID-19 protocols. The school has spent seven figures to minimize the spread of the virus—they have improved ventilation, hired additional staff, and enforced daily symptom checks. Everyone wears a mask during the school day, and the faculty has no tolerance for students who do not wear masks. Even the smallest of details are noticed—say during class, my nose slips out of my mask. In a matter of moments, someone will tell me to pull the mask back up, thereby keeping us safe.
I respect the Haverford administration for how quickly and effectively they have restructured the way we learn, but the thing is that none of it matters if we go and reverse it all during sports.
When I get to practice, there’s a strange shift that occurs—the hyper-cautious COVID-19 protocols of the school day are suddenly relaxed. When the athletes run in cross country, they are completely free to take their masks off. I understand that this is for good reason—wearing a mask while running limits the athlete’s breathing, severely hindering performance. Yet, I have seen time and time again that when masks aren’t required during sports practice, social distancing breaks down.
In cross country, the athletes run in groups, maskless, for upwards of forty minutes, all the while breathing heavily. However, cross country is an essentially solitary sport, while other fall sports such as football and soccer require contact, making it impossible to play the sport without breaking social distancing guidelines.
“Kids are going to be closer because they’re going to be trying to tackle the ball. There’s offense and defense so they’re going to be clashing,” Fourth Form soccer player Neil Sawney said. “Towards the end of practice, we’re doing more live gameplays. To an extent, the longer the practice goes on, the less it’s socially distanced.”
The same is true for football, a sport that requires more contact than soccer.
“Obviously there’s going to be contact within the linemen and other positions,” Fourth Form football player Zach Powell said. “[The linemen] do have a lot of contact for maybe five seconds.”
The main argument for allowing sports is that the athletes are outside and moving around, which reduces the danger.
This is true, to an extent. An article from Vox explains how the coronavirus spreads differently because of distance, duration, and ventilation. Outdoor practices mean better ventilation, yes, but that does not mean distance and duration can be ignored. Even though the kids that are playing are supposed to be moving, there is plenty of time when people are close together for longer than a split second.
“There are some times in the middle of a drill when people are just kind of talking and they’re fairly close,” Sawney said. “Most kids have done it.”
Also, if you simply look at the news, you will see just how dangerous outdoor, maskless meetings can be, despite the decreased risk that comes from being outdoors. High profile individuals such as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins, and even the President and the First Lady all contracted COVID after attending an outdoor event in the Rose Garden that Dr. Fauci, the leading COVID expert in the US, called a “superspreader.” Even though the kids playing sports at Haverford are moving much more than the people at the Rose Garden event, there are still daily instances of social distancing neglect at practice, and this adds up after happening daily.
However, I don’t just want to criticize the sports program at Haverford; I want to give credit where it is due, and as I talked to athletes, one sport—crew—seemed to be doing an exemplary job.
“We just use singles [a boat that can only fit one person]. If we were in doubles or quads then we would have to wear masks and it would just not be as safe,” Forth Form rower Connor Pinsk said. “And I just don’t think the school wants to take that risk.”
Where Connor is wrong is that the school is fine taking that risk, as we have seen from the football, soccer, and cross country programs—crew is the odd one out.
I want you to think about one thing: how lucky the Haverford community is during this moment in history.
I’ll offer a solution to the problem, but I’m almost certain my solution won’t be well received. Other sports programs must follow in the steps of crew, making sacrifices about the types of activities that they can do to increase safety. The cross country team would need to sacrifice running in groups, the football and soccer teams would need to sacrifice having any sort of physical contact during practice, and all teams would need to sacrifice having games with other schools.
Before you call me a heretic, I want you to think about one thing: how lucky the Haverford community is during this moment in history. According to CNBC, 71% of students around the country have virtual school or a hybrid. At Haverford, we are not only in the minority for having the ability to come into school every day, but we are also in an even smaller minority that can practice and participate in school sports. We need to appreciate how exceptionally lucky we are, and from that mindset, do everything in our power to address, rather than ignore, the pandemic.