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Editorial: First duties of schools are health, education, well-being

For the first time in months, high school athletes next week are scheduled to hit the hardwood for the first games in the 2020-2021 basketball season.

Athletes will take the court clad in uniforms with school colors, but that’s about the only thing that will stay the same. Basketball players are required to wear masks during practices and games. Exceptions are allowed if the student has a medical condition. Gaiters are not permitted. Other notable changes include  no jump ball to start the game, no pre- or postgame handshakes, a new official timeout after the four-minute mark of each quarter, host schools must ensure balls are disinfected during timeouts and between quarters, and team benches will be opposite spectator seating.

If these rules are needed just to get athletes on the basketball court indoors, should the state’s public schools be playing basketball at all? High school sports provide a sense of camaraderie and are often a critical part of adolescence for athletes and their spectator peers, but the first duty of schools is education. As community hubs, schools also are forced to grapple with the well-being of students at home. So, it’s worth noting that, while youngsters have a lower risk for severe cases of coronavirus, the same may not be true for their parents or grandparents.

South Carolina schools have apparently realized their most critical duty, and news outlets there report swaths of basketball games are being canceled or postponed.

Meanwhile, basketball is a contact sport and one that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services recommended avoiding in guidance issued Dec. 8 even as the N.C. High School Athletic Association kept its calendar. Things have only gotten worse since then. Why is the state athletic association plowing ahead with a sport state health officials advise against?

Volleyball is not an apt comparison because the sport is played in an entirely different manner and the same state health officials simply recommended playing outdoors when possible, wearing face coverings if possible and limiting tournaments.

Sure, North Carolina isn’t alone in drafting new rules to allow high school sports to move forward or requiring masks for indoor sports where there’s prolonged contact. In Virginia, the Department of Health “strongly advises athletes to wear masks at all times during group training, competition and on the sidelines.”

And as they did in volleyball, North Carolina’s high school basketball players will adapt to the mask-wearing requirement and other rules partially because of their love for the game and that it’s been months since organized competition that counted for wins and losses.

But this may be the moment where health guidance should rule the day.

There is a logical fallacy in the fact that the basketball season is about to start as Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen are giving regular press briefings that stress the severity of worsening COVID-19. The state is reporting record percentages of tests returning positive and numbers of people hospitalized.

More than half of the counties in the state have been labeled as “critical spread” areas and only eight are in the lowest tier for the severity of virus spread in their communities. Department of Health and Human Services’ guidance for “critical” (the worst category) and “substantial” counties (the second-worst) is to limit mixing between households and minimize the number of people in your social circle. The department also recommends limiting public interactions to mainly essential activities.

Why is the state in that context about to start indoor basketball? That vaccines are being administered now is not relevant until the first groups of people have received both doses necessary to protect against COVID-19.

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