Our View: Return to high school sports showing some progress against pandemic

The return of preps sports, approved on Wednesday by the Illinois High School Association, could be seen as some headway in the state’s nearly year-long fight against the pandemic.

Illinois, which has been one of the more strict governments in the United States when it comes to opening our society, is allowing athletes to return to courts, pools and fields, albeit with face masks and no or just a few dozen fans and parents in the stands.

That’s a sign of progress, that masks, social distancing and working remotely are effective. If mitigations, determined by scientists, physicians, epidemiologists and politicians, are slack enough to allow us to have a meal in a restaurant or a drink in a bar, it must be safe enough to allow high school athletes to play sports.

Wednesday’s IHSA announcement comes less than a week after the Illinois Department of Public Health announced that regions that reach Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois health plan will be allowed to play games.

The IHSA released its calendar for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, allowing for boys and girls basketball and other winter sports to start immediately. Many other sports, including football, will start soon as well.

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said the IHSA achieved its goal of providing an opportunity for every high school athlete to compete safely while also maximizing opportunities for traditional spring sports that lost their entire season a year ago because of the pandemic.

Anderson said the IHSA board has been conscientious in considering “every possibility,” and believes its decision is a “positive step for the mental, emotional and physical well-being of our students.”

That’s likely the correct call, but everyone from school administrators, coaches, officials, parents and the athletes themselves must be safe and practice prescribed COVID-19 protocols. No one involved in the process can let down their guard. And when games are postponed or canceled, we all need to take it in stride.

We also have to keep our expectations in check. The athletes are going to be in contact with each other. There is no social distancing on the court or playing field, so there is an increased possibility for spread of the virus. It’s just going to happen. Despite daily testing and diligent protocols, some MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL and college athletes get COVID-19.

The return of prep sports also coincides with new vaccines and the race to inoculate as many people as possible to also fight a new strain of a COVID-19 variant found in the United Kingdom and South Africa. On Thursday, this variant was found in South Carolina.

UK research indicates the variant that has taken hold there spreads 30% to 70% faster than the strains common in the United States and early works suggests it could be about 30% more deadly, the UK’s chief scientific adviser told British media. That means if 1,000 60-year-olds were infected with the variant still common in the United States, 10 of them might be expected to die, but that rises to about 13 with the new variant.

Limiting the spread of the virus also limits the chances the virus could mutate further.

So far, it looks like existing vaccines will offer some protections. Still, we must be vigilant.

We must also take heed of everyone’s concerns.

Last week, Shaw Local sports reporter Jacob Bartelson wrote an engaging article about the impact COVID-19 has had on high school athletes and their mental health as they awaited a return to sports. St. Charles East junior basketball player Olivia Kiefer talked about the agonizing decision she and her family will have to make: whether to play this season.

“I don’t want a loved one to pass because I want to play one season of basketball,” Kiefer told Bartelson.

That’s a decision thousands of high school athletes across the state are making now, and we will soon learn what they chose.

We hope they all will be safe.