Last weekend, a bit of routine returned for high school football players, coaches, cheerleaders and fans, as South Carolina’s public schools kicked off a delayed and shortened football season.
It wasn’t normal: The players maintained social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when they weren’t tackling each other and sweating and yelling at each other and piling up on top of each other, and the coaches wore masks — well, except the ones who didn’t, when they didn’t; ditto the cheerleaders and fans.
But in most school districts, it was a lot closer to normal than what the normal students get to experience. While most districts are allowing only some students in the classroom or allowing students in the classroom only a couple of days a week — and 10 still don’t allow any students in the classroom — nearly all the football players got to dress out for the game, just as they had gotten to attend practices, whether they were allowed in the classroom or not.
The Jasper County School District isn’t allowing students in the classroom or on the football field. But the big districts in Richland County and, as far as we can tell, all the other districts that offer only virtual classes — along with all the districts that limit the number of students in school or the number of days they’re in school — are allowing athletes to do something that’s a lot riskier than attending classes.
And, we would argue, a lot less important.
We find a way to do what’s important to us, and last weekend’s opening of the high school football season demonstrated quite clearly what’s most important to most school districts in our state: football.
Under state law, the S.C. High School League sets the rules for high school athletics. But Education Superintendent Molly Spearman’s spokesman and designee on the league’s executive committee, Ryan Brown, made it clear at a committee meeting this summer that she thinks the priorities are backwards.
“It sends a very bad message that if a school is going to be 100% online yet they’ve got kids tackling people on the football field — that that’s being allowed to take place, but yet kids can’t sit in a classroom social distanced with masks on,” he argued. But other members of the executive committee dismissed the idea that schools should be required to provide face-to-face instruction in order to participate in athletics.
That’s not surprising: The league, after all, has little interest in academics, as its executive director made clear when he also rejected Mr. Brown’s argument that if virtual-only districts can field football teams, then the state’s three online-only charter schools also should be allowed to, noting that “the academic piece is just a small piece” in deciding which schools can join the league.
Our Legislature made the choice to allow such a singularly focused organization to make those decisions — and not to give Mrs. Spearman enforcement tools for districts that aren’t trying hard enough to get kids back in the classroom full-time. But the fact that the league is allowing football in districts that consider it unsafe to make room for all or even any students in classrooms doesn’t mean that school districts have to participate. Jasper County, after all, made the principled decision to be consistent.
Although we have some concerns, we’re not saying football should be prohibited. We’re saying that academics are a lot more important than athletics. When school districts allow students to play football, they simply cannot justify locking any of them out of the classroom.