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Michigan high schools forced to navigate patchwork COVID testing protocols

Matt Seidl.
Matt Seidl.
A trio of Olivet High School cross country runners prepare to compete in a match during the 2021 spring season.

With no statewide mandate requiring COVID-19 related restrictions, Michigan high schools navigate different guidelines by county and region.

EAST LANSING, Mich.— For Matt Seidl, Olivet High School’s athletic director and boys’ basketball head coach, navigating different COVID-19 procedures amongst local schools is quite challenging.

Olivet, which has an enrollment of 485, plays in the Greater Lansing Activities Conference. The school, located approximately 35 miles southwest of Michigan State University, is in neighboring Eaton-Barry County.

Unlike last season, school districts and the MHSAA are no longer receiving COVID-19 mandates from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Instead, high schools follow the guidelines of county health departments.

“In our conference right now, we have three schools (Leslie, Stockbridge and Lansing Christian) that have a mask mandate, and that also includes athletic events that they host,” Seidl said. The other schools (Lakewood, Olivet and Perry) do not have mask mandates.”

With such a wide variety of COVID-19 safety measures (or lack thereof), high schools are being forced to navigate a labyrinth of conflicting expectations, guidelines and regulations.

“A little bit of it was inconsistent, we would go to one school and wear a mask and play, and we’d go to another school for volleyball and not wear a mask,” Seidl said. “That’s going to be the way for basketball unless something changes.”

Current Requirements

The mixed bag of expectations has led to some consternation between Michigan schools belonging to conferences spanning across multiple counties.

“Parents and athletes do get frustrated, I think, when they come from an area that doesn’t have a restriction and they have to go participate,” Seidl said. “I’ve heard of schools in other conferences that have chosen not to participate in certain events at venues where masks are required.”

Matt Seidl.
Matt Seidl.
Olivet High School golfer Elle Sheppard practices her swing during the spring of 2021.

Seidl said this issue was especially prevalent in Washtenaw County, which has a blanket mask-wearing requirement for all schools.

The larger schools in Washtenaw County (Saline, Dexter, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, etc.) participate in the Southeastern Conference; the league stretches into Monroe, Jackson, and Lenawee counties.

Currently, Washtenaw County has seen 73.8% of its residents receive at least one dose of either the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Lenawee County, meanwhile, is currently at 53.5%.

Monroe County is even lower at 50.1%.

Issues Up North

For schools across the state, especially up north, the decision to choose to follow some protocols (or not) is up to member schools. There have been very few league-wide mandates, regarding mask-wearing, rapid testing and social distancing, for most of these smaller northern schools.

“Right now, there is nothing league-policy wise,” Jack Lindell, the Executive Director of the North Star League, said. “Even in the year previous, there was nothing that we said that, ‘This is our league policy.’ ”

The North Star League is composed of several tiny schools around the Oscoda county area, including Mio, Posen, Oscoda, Rogers City, Hillman, Hale, Atlanta, Alcona and Whittemore Prescott. All participate in 8-man football, with the exception of Oscoda.

Oscoda, the largest high school in the conference, has 320 students. The league also stretches out into Alpena, Montmorency, Alcona, Arenac, Iosco and Ogemaw counties.

Matt Seidl.
Matt Seidl.
Several Olivet volleyball players anxiously cheer on their teammates during a game in the fall of 2021.

“Even this year, whatever the state tells us to do, the schools do,” Lindell said. “Otherwise, it’s basically left up to schools. Some schools are still (rapid) testing and some schools are not. Some schools are following the protocols as far as the masks being required.”

As of Oct. 24, the state of Michigan has seen over 68% of its residents receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Oscoda county, meanwhile, has seen only 48.6% of residents 16 and over receive at least one dose of the vaccine.

Despite COVID-19 vaccine status affecting roster decisions in professional sports leagues such as the NBA, it is not expected that a minor’s vaccine status will factor into roster decision-making across the state.

“I don’t think it will be, but I was definitely worried about that in the summer,” Seidl said.

Lindell agreed.

“That’s an issue that maybe will come up, at this point it hasn’t,” he said. “Right now, it’s kind of like ‘do you have enough kids (with most schools having under 300 students in total)?”

The MHSAA’s future COVID-19 plans 

The plan, going forward for the MHSAA, is to continue to defer to local county health departments.

“For us to step in, that’s not really our role,” Geoff Kimmerly, the communications director for the MHSAA, said. “We are not doctors...for us to possibly put something together, that is something that really belongs with the health departments.”

Kimmerly also said that the one main guideline the MHSAA is enforcing is that host schools can decide what protocols (if any) to enforce and that any visiting schools must follow those protocols established by the host school.

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