PROVIDENCE — Jeff Levy watched his son struggle to play basketball last year with a mask. The gym doors at his school, Rocky Hill Country Day in East Greenwich, were left open in the winter months during games and practices for increased air flow. But without vaccines available to younger Rhode Islanders at the time, playing a high-contact sport felt like taking a risk.
“You’re practically on top of each other. Breathing heavy. All touching the same ball,” recalled Levy recently. “And depending on who the refs were at these games, masks weren’t always enforced.”
Levy said his son, now 17, quit basketball in the middle of the season. “COVID just ruined it for him,” he said.
But as his son begins cross country and lacrosse this school year, now fully vaccinated, Levy is hoping schools across the state implement a vaccine mandate for all student athletes and their coaches.
“I have to show a chart from my kid’s doctor every year to say that he’s up on all his shots. I don’t understand why we’re treating COVID vaccines any differently,” he said.
Parents of student-athletes in private and public schools in Rhode Island say they are hoping for some type of vaccine mandate. But while Governor Dan McKee held a press conference at Johnston High School turf field Wednesday, encouraging young students (especially athletes) to get vaccinated, no such mandate has been implemented. And it’s unclear if there will be one in the future.
“Vaccines are recommended but not mandatory,” said Julie Mancini, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, which overseas most public high school sports in Rhode Island. And unless state agencies, like the health and education departments, make changes, a RIIL mandate isn’t expected in the future, according to executive director Michael Lunney.
According to the state’s school reopening plans, schools don’t have to require student athletes to get tested prior to the season, but masks will be required indoors, including in training rooms and locker rooms. School athletic directors do not have to notify the state health department about players’ vaccine statuses unless a player tests positive for COVID-19, and then it’s just for contact tracing and quarantining purposes.
Outside of Rhode Island, some school districts are requiring that student athletes be vaccinated. Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia announced in August that all students who play winter and spring high school sports are required to get a vaccine. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that about 20,000 high school student athletes and staff participating in “high-risk” sports will have to receive at least one dose by the first day of competition play. Those playing in “low-risk” sports, such as baseball, soccer, tennis, gymnastics, and track — about 20,000 more student athletes — won’t have to be vaccinated at this point.
In Rhode Island, the immunization schedule for students is developed in partnership with the state health department, not through legislation, according to department spokesman Joseph Wendelken.
He said state statute directs the health department to develop regulations related to disease prevention, and then the department works with “many partners” in developing the school immunization schedule, including a pediatric advisory committee. Public hearings are generally held if when the schedule is amended, in order to solicit input from entities throughout the state, he said.
But, Wendelken said, “It is especially important for people playing sports to get vaccinated against COVID-19. People on sports teams may be exposed to more respiratory droplets, and are in close contact with other people regularly.”
Wendelken acknowledged there have “not been any steps” taken at the state health department to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for student athletes.
Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, said requiring COVID-19 vaccines of all students, teachers, and school staff would create a “less disruptive” school year compared to last year, where positive cases and exposure would mean days of quarantining, distance learning, and learning loss.
“I’m open to starting with student athletes first, and then moving to the entire school population across the state,” she said.
And if the state doesn’t mandate the vaccine for students, she said she’ll be putting in legislation come January to make it a requirement.
“I hope it doesn’t take that long,” she said.
But not all parents feel a vaccine mandate is necessary.
Representative David Place, a conservative Republican from rural Burrillville, introduced a bill in the spring that would have prohibited Rhode Islanders from having to prove that they received the vaccine when entering a public buildings, private businesses, or to attend schools. It did not pass.
One North Kingstown mom, who asked to remain anonymous because there’s “so much hate from the mandate fan base,” said she pulled her daughter out of school and started homeschooling her before COVID-19. But her daughter, now a senior, still plays softball for the school and she said she is “so against a mandate for anyone.”
“We are absolutely not getting the jab,” she said. “We do what we can to keep our natural immunity up and will see what happens in the long-term with this vaccine and go from there.”
Another parent created a private group on Facebook in June called “Lil Rhodies AGAINST Mandates.” The group, which has more than 1,300 members, was designed for Rhode Island parents to “band together to fight to stop mask mandates in schools.” Members of the group are now calling on the state to prevent vaccine mandates.
Another online petition calling for the unmasking of kids in Rhode Island schools has garnered more than 4,900 signatures.
But other parents who are concerned about their student athletes contracting, and spreading, COVID-19 are pushing back.
Jordan Frank, whose children go to independent schools in Providence and East Providence said he thinks “Any parent that intends to step foot on campus or go to a game or event” should be getting the shot, not just students, staff, and coaches
“Any any parent of a child who is under 12 who can’t get vaccinated yet should be. [It] creates a safety barrier around the child at the place, especially around kids, who are likely to get COVID-19,” he said.