What Restarting Sports And Reopening Schools Have In Common

On Saturday, the Mid-American Conference became the first Football Bowl Subdivision to postpone its upcoming season. The announcement comes amidst the most recent debate about schools doing the exact opposite—reopening and requiring students and faculty to return to campus.

While many conferences, such as the Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference, and Atlantic 10 Conference, are delaying fall sports, some leagues have already brought players back to the field. Major League Soccer even hosted an MLS is Back Tournament with players, coaches, staff, referees, and other members of the delegation currently staying at a host hotel in Florida.

What continues to happen with these attempts to restart sports is that even in the most tightly controlled settings—and with a multimillion dollar budget to boot—the virus still, somehow, finds a way in. I anticipated this outcome in a previous Forbes article on the topic, and regretfully my predictions have come true.

These recent developments aren’t of interest to sports fans alone. Studying and learning from the successes and failures of so-called sports “bubbles” and other strategies of containment can help us think through the decisions we now face on whether to reopen schools—and if they do reopen, what we might expect. The fact of the matter is that no matter the protocols put in place, Covid-19 will still find its way into the classroom, resulting in unwanted surges in new cases.

A soccer league’s attempt to keep the virus at bay

In preparing for their comeback tournament, Major League Soccer teams took no shortage of precautions against the virus, including testing every other day before the trip to Florida; testing upon arrival and enforcing isolation for 12 hours until results come back; and testing every other day for the first two weeks. 

At first, it appeared that the bubble was working. But with each team that arrives, even with so many rigorous safety measures in place, the League introduces more people into their bubble—making it all the more likely that the virus will also be brought in and spread among the athletes, coaches, and staff.

Right before Toronto FC participated in the kickoff against D.C. United, both teams found out that each group had one positive Covid test, resulting in the league being thrown for a loop and having to postpone the match for a second time. What’s more, Toronto FC had not been in the bubble for seven days prior to their match.

While Major League Soccer is continuing to conduct periodic testing and take extra precautions, we do not know what the future holds. The League, and anyone else who follows suit, treads dangerously close to the line of risk, as they open their bubble and make the spread of Covid-19 more likely.

Sports stadiums, the White House—are schools next?

As seen with Major League Soccer, even with strict protocols, it is still possible to have a positive Covid test among a group of people that have been living in a so-called bubble. Even the White House staff, despite adhering to guidelines such as conducting periodic testing and enforcing mask-wearing, has seen its own handful of positive cases, including National Security Advisor Robert O-Brien.

Reopening schools is following a similar path to what sports teams and the White House are doing in order to safely bring people back to their usual routines—conducting daily temperature checks, enforcing mask-wearing, requiring social distancing, and so on. However, these measures do not guarantee that students, faculty, and staff will not bring the virus into the school and spread it.

Schools in Israel, for example, slowly brought students back in May. However, after thinking they had beaten the virus and bringing the rest of the student body back, infections started to pop up in a high school in Jerusalem, which then spread to students’ homes, other schools, and neighborhoods.

No matter the amount of money spent or number of precautions taken, forcing a premature “return to normal” as record-breaking Covid-19 outbreaks rage on is bound to backfire. If anything, rather than bringing sports back on schedule and school back in session, we should follow the lead of the Mid-American Conference—postponing a false sense of normalcy in favor of our actual safety and wellbeing.

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.