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MSD joins 'Let Them Play' chorus

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Medford School Board Chair Jeff Kinsella said the board’s decision to send a letter to Gov. Kate Brown Friday asking her to “continue to follow the science” and let students participate in sports was a “no-brainer,” and one he hopes will make a difference as part of the “Let Them Play in Oregon” campaign.

Currently, prep football and volleyball are not allowed in Jackson County — football because it’s prohibited throughout the state and volleyball because Jackson County’s COVID-19 case-count and test positivity rate has earned it the “extreme risk” designation. The soccer and cross-country seasons are slated to begin March 1. Updated guidance from the state is expected in the coming days.

The letter, addressed to Brown, the Oregon Health Authority and leaders of the Oregon School Activities Association, expressed the board’s “urgent concern for our thousands of students who, due to COVID-19 restrictions, have lost many opportunities to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities.” It went on to refer to data collected from states that have been participating in contact sports that purportedly show “it can be done safely.”

The board decided to toss its support behind “Let Them Play” after one of the campaign’s founders, Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer, reached out to a board member in late January, Kinsella said. Then beginning Feb. 1, Kinsella said, the board began getting inundated with letters from parents.

“They were just staying, hey, we want our kids to play,” Kinsella said. “And we heard that message over and over again. And all of us on the board have kids. They’re probably grown and out, but I understand from my own sons the importance of playing and sports.

“These kids are out of school right now. I mean, they’re in online school and some of them are in limited in-person instruction, but sports plays a big part in a lot of kids’ lives in just getting outdoors and interacting and running around, and I’m not sure how much of that is going on right now.”

Many of the letters were heartfelt pleas asking the board to lend its voice to the effort.

One read: “We are all extremely concerned with the overall health and safety of our kids and support efforts to protect them from harm. Many policies that were well-intentioned at first have proven to cause many more negative impacts to our children than the harm they were intended to prevent. In many cases, as in the prohibition of contact sports and activities in Oregon, these policies have even been shown to be counter-productive in the efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The data now clearly shows that it is time to rescind this policy and help restore some of the health benefits, vital relationships and important opportunities our students have so sorely been missing.”

Another: “My boys are juniors in high school and have played sports since they were 3. ... Sports have not only blessed them with life-long friendships from all over the state (out-of-state and they had an opportunity to play in Europe also), but (have) taught my boys the value of hard work, getting along with others, how to keep their cool under pressure and when calls/games don’t go their way. ... They work hard in the classroom and keep their grades up because they have goals to play sports in college.”

Kinsella said after reading the letters it was clear to the board that it “needed to do something proactive.”

The board considered drafting a resolution similar to the one it sent to Brown in December asking her to prioritize reopening schools, but ultimately decided that a letter could be finished much sooner and would “achieve the same impact.” The board approved the decision to write the letter unanimously after a brief discussion during Thursday’s meeting.

The OSAA executive board approved alternative options Monday for football, including oversight of a potential 7-on-7 flag football season and virtual lineman challenges to replace traditional contact football. Volleyball, meanwhile, may be pushed to Season 3 or 4 of the OSAA’s four-season plan in those counties which fall into the extreme risk category.

Are those compromises acceptable? Kinsella says that’s like asking if remote learning is better than no learning. To him, the answer is clear.

“I would say yes,” he said. “If we could participate in sports in any capacity, even if it doesn’t look the same, guess what — I’m still outside running around, participating with my buddies and interacting, and I’m doing something physical. So I think it’s a win.

“Some of the things that we’ve learned through COVID-19 is they happen in incremental steps. And if this is a step to getting to full participating in contact sports, I’m happy with that. It’s not exactly what I want, but if people see kids out there playing and they go, ‘Wait a minute, we can do better. Let’s be really diligent about following the protocols,’ that would be my big hope.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

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North Medford sophomore Zach Taylor, center, stands with his soccer ball at the Let Them Play rally at Fichtner-Mainwaring Park in Medford. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune