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Local control over COVID-19 guidelines creates uncertain prep wrestling season

Without mandatory SDHSAA or state Department of Health COVID-19 guidelines, schools have come up with varying policies.

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Chamberlain's Dominic Santiago (top) gains control over Mitchell's Brandon Sparks during a 126-pound match during a dual meet on Dec. 4 in Mitchell. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

Chamberlain’s Dominic Santiago prepared for his season-opening match in Mitchell on Dec. 4 like any other.

Santiago straightened his head gear and made sure his singlet was in order, but he also adjusted a face mask that covered his entire head, save for his eyes.

Wearing a face mask may not have seemed out of place at Mitchell High School, where they are required on district property. But Santiago was not wearing the mask on his own accord.

Unbeknownst to his opponent and the remainder of the Mitchell staff, Santiago wore the mask at the behest of the Chamberlain School District to allow him to compete after being deemed a close contact with someone that had COVID-19.

The South Dakota High School Activities Association recommends a 14-day quarantine for close contacts. But through winter sports guidelines, decisions are left to individual schools, placing an already high-risk sport in murkier waters as each school operates with different protocols.

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Chamberlain allows students to remain in school if they have a close contact while wearing a mask during exposure and are asymptomatic. So, the district purchased masks for the wrestling team for such an occasion. Meanwhile, Mitchell not only does not allow close contacts to compete in athletics, it requires a mandatory 14-day quarantine from the school.

“It’s a little unsettling,” Mitchell activities director Cory Aadland said. “We definitely need to trust other schools. It’s hard because we don’t have any clear direction coming from the Department of Health or those organizations. It’s been left to each school to determine how they want to deal with it, which is where you get into different schools treating things differently.”

Throughout the fall, Chamberlain discovered many of its close contacts were not testing positive. So, the school began to allow students that were not displaying symptoms to return to school while wearing a mask.

On Dec. 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention update guidelines in quarantine could end after Day 10 without testing and no symptoms have been reported or a quarantine could end after Day 7 if a person tests negative within 48 hours of quarantine discontinuation and no symptoms were reported.

According to the CDC, the risk percentage at Day 7 is between 10.3% and 22.1% without testing, while dropping from 3.1 to 11.9 with testing. At Day 10, not testing risk ranges from 0.1 to 10.6% and 0.1 to 9.5% with testing. By Day 14, the length the CDC still recommends, the risk falls to 0 to 3% with testing and 0 to 2.9% with testing.

In order to prevent wrestlers missing two weeks, Chamberlain opted to purchase masks after seeing a similar design used by the University of Michigan wrestling team.

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“The SDHSAA basically gave us the ability to do what you have to do to keep your team in competition if we don’t put anybody else at risk,” Chamberlain Superintendent Justin Zajic said. “Given the lack of close contacts that turned positive that we experienced at Chamberlain, we really don’t see that as an issue.”

Zajic was not aware if Mitchell had been notified that Santiago was considered a close contact and Aadland said the school was not informed. Mitchell has not reported any COVID-19 cases within the wrestling program since the dual, but felt it would have been prudent to have known.

Had the Kernels been aware, Aadland says they likely would have not wrestled that particular weight class. If no agreement was reached about scoring, they would have been willing to forfeit the match, and without transparency, a similar occurrence in the future could create spread.

“We’re not trying to gain an advantage over someone else’s situation,” Aadland said. “If someone has a close contact or has to shut the program down, we’re not going to press to get a forfeit out of it. We trust that people are going about it the right way. In this case, if they pressed for it to be a forfeit against us because we chose not to wrestle, then we would have taken that and dealt with the fallout.”

Delaware and Michigan are the lone two states that have required wrestlers to wear masks during competition and practices. Chamberlain does not wear them aside from close contacts, but Sanford Health athletic trainer manager Tryg Odney questioned the adequacy of wearing a mask while wrestling.

Studies have proven masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19 by reducing viral loads, but when two individuals are directly on top of each other, chances for spread increase. Masks also have a tendency to slide around during the match and the safety of the mask decreases.

“We’re talking about exertion with heavy exhalation and inhalation going on,” said Odney, who helped compose the SDHSAA winter sports guidelines. “Even two kids wearing masks for 15 minutes, I would say that’s an exposure. Masks aren’t going to prevent all of those particles from going in and out with that level of heavy breathing. Masks are going to become wet and allow those droplets to get through.”

Balancing crowd control and cancellations

Without clear rules from the state, Odney says it was difficult to help the SDHSAA create regulations. As a result, the SDHSAA left such protocols to local control, which was the preferred route for many schools.

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Fan restrictions and mask mandates in schools vary across the state, while tournaments have been restricted to eight teams and 112 participants on four mats. The SDHSAA recommended fan restrictions or no fans at such events, but Sanford knew not all guidelines would be adhered to locally.

When rules and guidelines change from school to school, following them becomes a more arduous task and Odney believes that can have an impact on safety. His concerns over significant complications to COVID-19 are not centered on athletes more than adult fans and coaches, however.

People between 10 and 19 years old have accounted for nearly 11% of South Dakota’s COVID-19 cases, but there has not been a death recorded in the age range. The risk of community spread is more prevalent among adults, particularly in towns where schools serve as the main entertainment.

“I didn’t see a lot of issues amongst teams. You almost expect to see more issues within your own team,” Odney said. “The concern that I had was with the crowd. This is the place where communities gather. When people gather in social settings, they tend to forget those strategies: masking, social distancing. … Once we get into January, we’ll be able to draw some parallels to mass gatherings.”

For coaches, concerns often lie more with the impact that pandemic has on their teams. Reduction in the number of wrestlers allowed in each tournament or dual meet has leaves fewer matches for some, particularly at the junior varsity level.

It has also forced some teams to restructure schedules and tournaments. Winner Area typically begins each season with a tournament at Kimball/White Lake, but with a cap on teams, the Warriors were forced to find other opportunities.

“I think South Dakota is doing it the right away by allowing the host schools determine stipulations and rules,” Winner Area head coach Spencer Novotny said. “... We’ve got a really good following in Winner and that crowd noise gets kids amped up. I wasn’t concerned about giving up things, but I was more concerned about what we had to do to make (the season) happen.”

As the SDHSAA was consulting with Sanford about winter sports guidelines in late October and early November, South Dakota’s test positivity percentage, cases and deaths per capita were among the worst of any area in the world. But, Chamberlain head coach John Donovan never felt the season should be canceled or postponed.

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“If kids aren’t doing anything, what are they going to do?” Donovan said. “Kids seem to find trouble. There are parents that try to keep kids out of trouble and they still find it. If we cancel the sport, we’re going to have a whole lot of kids that are going to find themselves not doing the right thing.”

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