Let the Practice Begin

Virginia youth softball players have a quick team meeting before heading back out onto the field during Tuesday's practice.

VIRGINIA — The Virginia Parks and Recreation Department has postponed youth baseball and softball programs after a player tested positive for COVID-19.

Brain Silber, director of Parks and Recreation, said city officials were notified Wednesday night after the Virginia student reached out to a coach about testing positive for the coronavirus. The city department immediately put a pause on the programs for 14 days.

Reached by phone, Silber told the Mesabi Tribune he didn’t know whether the player was symptomatic. The city, he explained, sent notifications to all participants in city-run summer programs, generally stating someone tested positive, but they were not necessarily exposed to the virus. The city also made separate calls to teammates, families and coaches of the player. “We have been doing our own contact tracing to determine what individuals, associated with our programs, may have been at an increased risk of exposure,” Silber said.

Virginia Fire Chief Allen Lewis, who is the city’s designated emergency manager, said the 14-day postponement was the right decision. He encouraged players, families and coaches to seek a COVID-19 test if they were exposed.

“It came from outside the team and was introduced,” Lewis told the Mesabi Tribune on Thursday, adding that in this case the virus was not passed from teammate to teammate, but involved a youth who tested positive and who happens to be on a softball team. “This is one case but with the supporting evidence, this was the right decision to make. We are trying to limit exposure. Our worry is that someone from that team would unintentionally expose their grandparent or someone else who is vulnerable.”

Dr. Noel Schmidt, superintendent of the newly-established Rock Ridge Public Schools, sent a letter to school staff this week notifying them of the same Virginia student testing positive for COVID-19 and the possibility of indirect exposure through open gym programs held at Roosevelt Elementary.

Schmidt said in an interview Thursday that three to four staff members were potentially in contact through the open gym periods. He expects the summer programs hosted at Virginia schools will be shut down for the season.

The two week postponement through the Parks and Recreation Department will only affect youth softball and baseball, with the exception of Little League baseball, impacting a total of seven teams and at least 77 youth.

All seven teams travel throughout the region, potentially expanding exposure to the coronavirus in other areas. Minnesotans ages 6-19 are among the fastest-growing demographic contracting the virus across the state with 4,525 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a figure that has doubled in recent weeks. The reasons for the uptick in youth cases have been largely attributed to loosened restrictions around activities and youth sports.

Silber said that the Parks and Recreation Department plans to monitor the situation and resume activities in the upcoming weeks, but stressed parents, guardians and children who feel returning isn’t safe are not obligated to come back.

“After 14 days — and this may change, COVID causes quick changes — we will resume our youth sports that have been temporarily suspended,” Silber said. “We will request participants confirm they have had no symptoms in the last 14 days, or have received a negative test.”

The presence of the coronavirus in youth sports underscores the delicate balance that Minnesota health officials and Gov. Tim Walz have been trying to achieve in recent weeks, as they continue to encourage social distancing, mask-wearing and other best practices against spreading the virus, while also maintaining some sense of normalcy for residents in the midst of a global pandemic.

It also shows the challenges facing youth sports organizers, schools and the Minnesota State High School Sports League as they weigh the safety of a fall sports season against the social and emotional benefits of interaction.

Schmidt said Rock Ridge will wait on guidance from the state level, but said schools will need to work harder on educating athletes and parents when and if sports return at the high school level this fall.

“I’m having a difficult time seeing a scenario where everything is normal,” he said. “We’re going to see changes. If sports run, we’ll have to make some adjustments in how we’re doing some events.”

Sports are an additional challenge for school officials who are anticipating guidance from the state Department of Education on what learning will look like in the fall. Education and health officials have asked schools to prepare for three scenarios — in-person classes, distance learning and a hybrid model — with a decision expected to come by the end of the month.

Those scenarios come with a number of hurdles to overcome, ranging from broadband connectivity to transportation to how students and staff can socially distance in the buildings.

That’s on top of the tug of war between health officials cautioning against in-person learning and the immense political pressure on the state and Walz to have a normal start to the school year.

Schmidt said Rock Ridge is bracing for a hybrid model of in-person and distancing learning, noting the positive case allowed the district to glean some lessons on what the fall could look like if they’re back in the classrooms and on the sports fields in any capacity.

“It does give us an indication of how difficult it is to keep kids apart from one another,” he said. “We’re going to have to triple down on social distancing, work with our kids on wearing masks and how they interact with other people. That’s not how kids are wired.”

In the meantime, Silber and the City of Virginia are keeping some of their summer programs going, noting that if fall sports are not in the cards, the city-run activities could be among the last chances for organized recreation.

Among the activities still operating in the city are the Little League baseball program, summer figure skating, the outdoor tennis courts and the Tennis for All building, music in the park, movies in the park and the farmers market.

He said throughout this summer, social distancing has been enforced at these events. Based on the size of dugouts for baseball and softball, a maximum of five players were allowed inside at once. The rest of the team distanced down the first or third base lines. Mask use was not required but recommended.

“Throughout this whole pandemic, we have been recognizing the emotional and social benefits that sports and activities bring to our youth and community. We do not want to have negative social or physiological impact by just canceling these activities,” Silber said. “We’ve all heard the rumors of possibly not having winter sports. This may be the last organized sport activity some of our kids will be able to participate in this year. We don’t want to take that away.”

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