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DOE mandates vaccinations for sports, delays high school seasons until Sept. 24

The state Department of Education on Wednesday announced that the start of high school athletic seasons will be delayed until Sept. 24 and that all student-athletes, athletic staff and volunteers will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by that date in order to participate in school-sanctioned sports.

“We opened the new school year this week with in-person learning, and our highest priority is to ensure all students can continue to attend school safely,” interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi said in a news release. “This decision was not made lightly because we know the important role athletics play in a well-rounded education, but we cannot jeopardize the health and safety of our students and communities. We saw over the weekend the impact that just one potential case can have on sports teams, students and families.

“The alternative is canceling the season outright, which we don’t want to have to do; so we are implementing this layered plan that prioritizes vaccinations as the best way to protect against and reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19,” he continued.

The move comes as the state continues to grapple with a surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.

The state Department of Health on Wednesday reported a statewide test positivity rate of 6.5%. Hawaii County has a 7.8% positivity rate, the highest in the state.

The announcement applies only to high school sports, a DOE spokeswoman said.

Tryouts and practices for high school sports teams, however, were already underway. Football started July 19, while girls volleyball, bowling, air riflery, cross-country and competitive cheer began Aug. 2.

Hilo High School cross-country coach Bill McMahon was surprised and disappointed after reading about the DOE’s decision to delay the start of the fall athletic season.

“We’ve already started training, and the postponement is effectively, probably, going to end our season,” he said. “Our season usually runs from the beginning of the school year to the first week of November, but you need to lay a foundation for cross-country before jumping into meets.”

Although the season extends beyond Sept. 24, McMahon said athletes usually start preparing for the season weeks in advance.

“For cross-country … we start training in July,” McMahon said. “I can tell the students to make sure they run on their own five times a week, but most of the time that is not going to happen.”

While McMahon was disappointed, he’s mostly concerned with the well-being of the athletes who have just returned to school after a year-and-a-half.

“(These) kids need this so badly, and they’re so happy to be back,” he said. “Now their sports are getting ripped out from underneath, and I don’t know, it’s just a bummer. We should feel sorry for them, because they are the ones losing out.”

Rachelle Hanohano, an assistant Waiakea High School girls volleyball coach, said she’s in favor of the vaccination requirement.

“Personally, I feel it’s a good thing,” she said. “Any way to minimize exposure to COVID-19 in any form, it’s important that we minimize a potential catastrophe. We don’t want to see loved ones or kupunas pass away from it. I think it will help the community as much as possible as more of us get vaccinated.

“For the athletic side of it, I think it’s a difficult call,” Hanohano continued. “Families have different belief systems in place. … It’s hard call, but I think the government is doing what they feel is best for people who want to play sports. … I hope everyone does what they need to do so we can make sure athletes can have a portion of their season. It can get worse, then we might not have a season again.”

Students and staff who receive an initial vaccine dose by Aug. 20 can be fully vaccinated by the Sept. 24 deadline.

By Aug. 20, proof of full vaccination or administration of the first and/or second vaccination dose must be submitted to the school’s principal in order to initially qualify to participate in school-sanctioned athletic activities, the DOE said.

Individuals who are not fully vaccinated by Sept. 24 will not be allowed to participate in athletics.

Full vaccination is defined as two weeks after a second dose in a two-dose series, or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine.

Students and adults can seek exemption from COVID-19 vaccination requirements for religious or medical reasons, with the appropriate documentation.

According to the DOE, medical exemptions must be verified in writing by a licensed physician. If an exemption is granted, the individual is allowed to participate in athletics but will be required to submit to twice-weekly COVID-19 tests.

University of Hawaii at Manoa student athletes must also be vaccinated against COVID-19 to participate in intercollegiate athletics, a move that’s in line with campus policies and other universities within its conferences, spokesman Dan Meisenzahl confirmed Wednesday.

Students also will be able to request exemptions for medical and religious reasons.

“The intent of this requirement is to create the healthiest and safest environment for all participants during practices, competitions, and team travel,” Meisenzahl said in an emailed statement. “This requirement is also made in the spirit of kokua, to protect all our community members who support our athletics programs. In addition to health and safety reasons, we want to make every effort to avoid cancellations of games and practices due to exposures, isolation, and quarantine.”

University of Hawaii at Hilo Athletic Director Patrick Guillen said guidelines for student athletes at the school were announced last week and are the same as UH-Manoa’s.

“I think it’s important for our student-athletes,” he said in a phone call to the Tribune-Herald. “It’s their own decision to make, and theirs to make alone. I think for the health and safety of our entire community, I think it’s prudent for them to be vaccinated.”

Guillen said he estimates that 95% to 98% of UH-Hilo’s student athletes will be vaccinated.

“I’m happy with that.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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