Athletes SHIELDed by Optional Weekly Testing

Maggie O'Brien, Staff Reporter

This winter when there was a rapid growth of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant in Illinois as well as in the MHS community, a once-a-week mandatory COVID-19 testing program was put in place for student athletes at MHS as a way to keep track of a group of students who may have been at a greater risk than others due to the potential high contact of sports. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), high risks involved in playing school sports could include the following: “No cloth face coverings; indoor spaces, especially if smaller, crowded, and poorly ventilated; sports with shared equipment and sports with frequent close contact.” 

Despite these risks, some saw the mandatory testing of athletes as an unfair targeting of a certain group of students. 

And while some sports put athletes at a higher risk than other sports, at the time the decision was made, it seemed as though the safest option was to test all athletes in the winter sports season. Getting ahead of who had COVID-19 on specific teams not only helped keep athletes safe, but it also allowed sports to stay in season while avoiding outbreaks among the school that could have sent the student body back into a remote learning situation. 

Mike Pope, assistant principal of student services, explained the reason behind the testing from an administrative standpoint.

“We would prefer to find out if [the person testing] had COVID right away, so we can remove them, so we don’t have more and more kids getting COVID,” Pope said, “[Because] the worst-case scenario is making us go remote because we have a breakout; that would have been the worst thing, so that’s why we made that decision. Obviously we had way more kids testing, so we clearly were already going to see more [cases].”

Therefore, as more kids were getting tested, there was a noticeable increase in cases, but the positive to this was these cases were now being caught before too much spreading of the virus could occur. 

SHIELD testing, then, showed its effectiveness immediately when athletes started to test in January. 

According to a FAQ document on the website, “SHIELD Illinois is a free screening testing program and infrastructure that deploys the University of Illinois’ innovative saliva test across the state. It’s open to all K-12 public schools across Illinois.”

While the positives of testing at the time seemed to outweigh some of the negatives to SHIELD testing, it is worth noting what those drawbacks were from the athletes’ perspectives so that these can be taken into account for future planning if a testing situation like this ever needs to be implemented again. 

Senior Ella Carlson, a member of the dance team, for example, mentioned the mental health aspect of being SHIELD tested, which created a constant worry about getting a positive result as positive results had significant impacts on some teams. 

For the dance team, it [was] extremely difficult when we [had] team members who would be testing positive when they were asymptomatic and would have no idea where they could’ve gotten it from,” Carlson said. “We aren’t like basketball where you just have to put another player in; instead, we [had] to rework the whole dance, which cause[d] people to have to learn new choreography and so on.” 

If we ever return to a situation like the one during the winter sports season, support for teams and their members should be put in place to help navigate some of these drawbacks to the SHIELD testing, but it would be wise to continue SHIELD testing during such times to combat a potential spread of COVID-19 within the school’’s sports programs and community at large.