Lead Pediatricians Weigh in on Just How Safe Kids' Sports Can Be During the Pandemic

As parents and kids grapple with a variety of back-to-school challenges, the American Academy of Pediatrics is sharing their opinion on returning to sports.

Kids elbow bumping their tennis instructor
Photo: Marko Geber/Getty Images

From figuring out how to optimize remote learning to determining what playdates look like these days, parents are navigating a bevy of pandemic-fueled challenges. With back-to-school season swiftly approaching, another question on many families' minds is whether the return to the classroom (albeit virtually) should go hand-in-hand with a return to sports.

Now, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released interim guidance on the matter in an effort to help parents weigh the individual benefits and risks of their children's sports activities and ensure that safety precautions are in place.

What the AAP Advises Parents

The AAP points out that children and teens benefit from sports not only physically but also psychologically. These activities provide kids with opportunities to socialize with friends, a critical part of development. Still, re-engaging youth in sports will require careful thought and safety precautions, noted the organization in a July 23 press release.

Susannah M. Briskin, MD FAAP, an author of the guidelines, stated that parents should talk to their pediatrician about the type of sport and setting, local disease activity, and individual circumstances, such as an underlying health condition that places the athlete or family members at high risk.

"The risk can be decreased, but not eliminated, by athletes, parents, coaches, and officials who follow safety protocols," explained Dr. Briskin in a press release. "Ultimately, this will be an individual choice for the parent to decide if they will allow their child to participate in sports."

The AAP also shared that parents can expect sports governing bodies to recommend modifications to practices, competitions, and events, and that guidance should reflect CDC recommendations and current local government restrictions for youth sports. "Before returning to sports, all children should have an annual health visit that ideally includes a pre-participation physical evaluation, which most parents know as a sports exam," said Dr. Briskin. "If kids have not been physically active for a lengthy period of time, they are at higher risk of an overuse injury."

AAP also recommends that families, coaches, and teams:

1. Prioritize Social Distancing

Coaches and parents should have kids focus on non-contact activities, such as conditioning and drills, so that kids can maintain physical distance.

Teams should also "maintain practice groups in consistent pods of small sizes that do not mix youth athletes to help limit team-wide virus outbreaks," according to the AAP. They should also minimize travel to other communities and regions and keep games local.

2. Wear Masks

"When physical distancing cannot be maintained, athletes should wear a cloth face covering during non-vigorous exercise," says the AAP. Kids shouldn't wear masks in water or while participating in activities where they could catch on equipment or make it hard for children to see.

3. Keep Things Clean

Supervising adults should encourage kid athletes (and parents) to wash their hands frequently, and make handwashing stations or hand sanitizer easily accessible. They should also "clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces on the field, court, or play surface at least daily or between uses as much as possible."

4. Don't Share

You should also try to limit using shared equipment or communal spaces (like locker or changing rooms) when possible. "Athletic areas with poor ventilation, such as weight rooms and small spaces where distancing cannot be maintained should be avoided," suggests the AAP. And kids should not share food or drinks at practices or games.

5. Stay Home When Needed

Kids who have any COVID-19 symptoms should avoid going to practices or competitions, and anyone who has had the virus should see their pediatrician before returning to sports.

As for parents/guardians who want to attend their kids' games? They should follow current local regulations for social distancing and use of cloth face coverings when considering game attendance, the AAP stated. Although, the guidelines did note that attending outdoor events may bear less risk than indoor events with less space and ventilation.

How Precautions Will Help in the Long-Run

While experts initially reported that COVID-19 mostly spares children and infants, new evidence suggests that kids are, in fact, contracting the novel coronavirus. In July, 85 infants tested positive for the coronavirus in one Texas county. And a new study out of South Korea found that children between the ages of 10 and 19 were just as likely to spread COVID-19 as adults.

That said, children don't appear to be suffering as much as adults when they fall ill. A study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, published in June 2020 in Nature Medicine, found that only 21 percent of patients between 10 to 19 years old displayed symptoms.

But in their press release, the AAP acknowledged that it's not necessarily kids' health alone that is of concern, as they could infect adult coaches, officials, or family members.

The bottom line, according to the organization: "Risk can be decreased but not eliminated by athletes, parents, coaches, and officials following safety protocols. Ultimately, the decision falls on a parents/guardians to decide whether they will allow their children to participate in sports."

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