Senate asks Whitmer to lift restrictions on winter student sports

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Senate on Thursday voiced unanimous support for a resolution urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to lift a suspension on student sports that is set to remain in place through Feb. 21. 

The resolution from Sen. Dale Zorn, R-Ida, received bipartisan support Thursday morning when it passed through committee. It passed by a voice vote on the chamber floor.

"Science-based data shows that students who participate in sports have health risk, higher self-esteem and greater academic success," Zorn said. "...All they want is to compete with their friends and be the best they can be.”

Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, was one of two Democratic lawmakers to vote in favor of the resolution when it passed Thursday through committee. She would have preferred there were also scientific experts or epidemiologists testifying but said she supported the idea of the resolution.

"I was OK with us, as a body, asking the governor to look at it more deeply," Geiss said. "That’s as far as my support for it can go at this point.”

Parents and students told lawmakers Thursday that they could practice contact sports safely and pointed to a recent pilot testing program among fall student athletes as proof. 

During that program, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, officials conducted 30,000 rapid COVID-19 tests on student athletes over the last three months and found they had a 99.8% negativity rate. 

"They are capable of meeting the challenge of COVID while still engaging in sports; they’ve proven this already.”" said Stacy Johnson, superintendent for Britton Deerfield Schools in Lenawee County.

A bipartisan Senate panel on Thursday voiced unanimous support for a resolution urging the governor and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to lift a suspension on high school sports that is set to remain in place through Feb. 21.

Whitmer last week cited a growing number of COVID-19 variant cases in Michigan when she said the state must watch the numbers closely before making a decision on contact sports. Through Wednesday, the state had 20 variant cases — 14 in Washtenaw County and six in Wayne County. 

The governor told WJR radio show host Paul W. Smith Thursday that the top priority for the state would be to get students back in school.

"Getting our kids back in class is top priority. Getting sports reengaged is up there as well, but top priority is getting them in school, making sure our numbers don't take a big jump and then we'll take that next step," Whitmer said. 

Parents, coaches, players and some school leaders, including the Detroit schools superintendent, have voiced frustration over the continued prohibition on contact sports. 

Johnson told lawmakers she tested positive for COVID-19 in November and was hospitalized with the virus while learning she had double lung pneumonia and severe diabetes. 

"For those of you who don’t believe, I’m here to tell you this virus is real," Johnson said through tears. But the superintendent said nothing has caused her more harm than the reaction of students who had done their best to comply with COVID-19 rules only to hear that sports would be delayed through Feb. 21.  

"There, outside my office, were high school students from all grade levels," Johnson said. "They weren’t loud or disruptive. They were just standing there staring at me, broken.”

Jayme McElvany, founder of Let Them Play, a group that advocated for football to restart in the fall and is now advocating for contact winter sports, said Michigan student athletes had become "the target of political games."

The COVID-19 testing pilot program should offer proof that athletes are able to play safely, McElvany said. 

"We’re asking the state of Michigan, where’s your science?" she said. "Because we have our science.”

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed.