SKPS has no plans to suspend extracurricular activities

Evan Cornell tries to get to the hoop off the dribble in McNary’s game against Lakeridge on Dec. 30. Sports in the Salem-Keizer School District will continue in spite of the large amount of COVID cases in the state (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).

Even with the exorbitant amount of COVID-19 cases in the state due to the omicron variant, Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS) will continue to engage in sports and other extracurricular activities.

On Monday, Jan. 3, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), along with Oregon Health Authority (OHA), released a new school health advisory that recommended that schools bring extracurricular activities to a halt, or ensure they follow the same layered mitigation safety protocols practiced during the school day (use of face coverings, screening and diagnostic testing, encourage vaccination, frequent hand washing, etc.).

“If schools and other organizations proceed with extracurricular activities, especially as these activities move indoors and individuals are unmasked, they should expect rapid transmission of COVID-19 that will prevent students from participating in in-person learning due to isolation for those that contract COVID-19 and lengthy quarantines for those that come into close contact with infected individuals,” the health advisory message says. “This risk should be clearly communicated to families participating in these extracurricular activities.”

The department said the advisory was “the most critical and urgent issued to date,” and came one day before the state set a new record for COVID cases reported in a single day with 4,540 infections — that total increased to 6,203 new cases the following day.

“As Oregon fully experiences the impacts of the omicron variant over the next several weeks, student access to in-person instruction is under serious threat,” the health advisory states. “While early data indicate that the Omicron variant may result in less severe disease than previous variants, it is increasingly clear that the omicron variant spreads much more quickly and easily than all previous variants.”

SKPS Director of High School Education Larry Ramirez said the district understands the risk that continuing sports and activities poses, but that they aren’t willing to cancel extracurricular events for the second time in as many years.

“We’re going to continue to give kids that opportunity. When we didn’t have athletics, we felt the negative impact in different ways, including performance in the classroom. It’s important to kids and we want to ensure we can still continue to do that,” he said. “We want to really adhere to the strict protocols and send out reminders to families on what we need to follow.”

McNary athletic director Scott Gragg echoed Ramirez’s sentiments after meeting with the other ADs in the district on Tuesday.

“We might have to have stricter protocols and implement other things, but continuing athletics is our priority,” Gragg said.

Yesterday evening, SKPS Superintendent Christy Perry sent out an email to district families about their intent to continue athletics and activities.

“We are continuing with our extracurricular activities and are reviewing protocols and safety measures. We will continue to prioritize consistent safety practices for student participants, coaches, staff and spectators, just as we have been doing,” the email said. “Families should be aware of the increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 during extracurricular events, which could result in students needing to quarantine. Any changes or adjustments to our protocols for students and/or spectators will be shared with families.”

After going nearly a year without providing athletics due to the pandemic, SKPS student-athletes returned to the field in March of last year to compete in a six-week shortened exhibition season. All athletes, coaches and fans were required to wear masks and each event had capacity limits and contact tracing protocols.

Since the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, however, sports in the area have continued without capacity requirements or contact tracing for fans. While coaches and fans are required to wear masks, athletes are not.

Gragg confirmed that McNary will be enforcing stricter protocols, starting with being more stringent about mask-wearing — players will now be strongly encouraged to wear their masks when they are not competing.

“It’s extremely important that spectators, coaches and athletes that aren’t competing wear their masks properly. We’re also encouraging distancing and being diligent about identifying close contacts,” Gragg said. “We want to make sure we are in alignment with what other folks are doing. There aren’t going to be drastic changes, but we will be tightening up protocols. We have to do everything we can to give us the best chance to keep the season going.”

Gragg also said that future adjustments to crowd capacity and scheduling could be coming in the near future

While vaccination mandates and diagnostic testing for athletes haven’t been discussed yet, the district will continue the process of holding out athletes that test positive for COVID for a period of time based on their vaccination status. Although quarantining teams and postponing contests is also a possibility according to Ramirez, canceling the season is currently out of the question.

“We aren’t going to play if it’s not safe, but we think it is healthy to keep kids out there. We might have to hold out certain student-athletes and teams if necessary, but we will not call off all athletics,” Ramirez said.

Earlier today, the McNary boys’ basketball program team had two games scheduled for this week postponed due to positive cases in the opposing programs (Forest Grove and Sheldon).

Matt Rawlings: [email protected]