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Jacques: Don't make student athletes pay for COVID spike

A year into the pandemic, we’re all feeling COVID fatigue. Yet with virus and hospitalization rates spiking again in Michigan, the impetus to “do something” is also rising.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials should resist placing the burden of any further restrictions on Michigan’s kids. They’ve suffered enough disruptions, which have had serious impact on their physical and mental health. Young people have never been at significant risk of suffering the worst outcomes of  COVID — rather it’s older adults and those with underlying conditions that face the greatest threat. All adults over 16 are now eligible for the vaccine. 

Restrictions that would burden young people are once again up for discussion, however, with Whitmer and even the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week hinting that high school sports should be the target of shutdowns.

Families of student athletes are pushing back against existing rules and regulations governing youth sports. Last week, the group Let Them Play Michigan filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services, challenging the onerous rapid COVID testing requirements of students age 13-19 who are practicing and playing on teams. 

Students must be tested at least once a week, with many student athletes subject to testing up to three times a week, depending on their sport. The Health Department says it’s supplying the rapid nasal antigen tests — paid for by the federal government — to schools and “training district staff to conduct the tests.”

These strict guidelines, along with mandatory mask wearing and contact tracing for athletes, make Michigan an outlier, as it was earlier this year when it was one of only three states that banned high school contact sports. 

More: Jacques: Vitti rips Whitmer on school sports ban

Jayme McElvany, a Michigan mom who is leading the Let Them Play effort, posted the following this week on the group’s Facebook page, which has more than 45,000 members: 

“Governor have proven to the entire country that lockdowns and restrictions do NOTHING!! Explain why the entire country is capable of SAFELY playing youth sports, without masks, without testing, without restrictions...WITHOUT SPIKES IN CASES...yet you think you know better.”

To her credit, the governor has said she’s not yet planning on additional lockdowns, even as the state faces its current surge. Rather, she says she is focusing on boosting vaccines — and that’s the right focus. 

The student testing mandates remain in place, though, and that’s what Let Them Play Michigan hopes to overturn with its lawsuit. The suit questions the legal authority of the order and subsequent guidance, as the Health Department didn’t go through the proper rule-making process, among other issues. 

The filing states: “For more than a year, student-athletes have endured unilateral orders enacted by Executive Branch officials that severely restrict their ability to freely associate with one another and compete in high school sports.

“Plaintiffs have no adequate remedy at law for this continuing violation of their constitutional rights.”

According to a memo from Honigman, which is representing the group and individual parents, Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the MDHHS, did not identify the legal authority for issuing the rules, but rather pointed to the order itself. 

“You can’t just put a document out without going through any administrative process,” says Peter Ruddell, an attorney with Honigman. 

But governing via “frequently asked questions” and infographics is the world we’ve all had to deal with since March 2020, Ruddell says. 

Let Them Play took similar legal action in early February after Whitmer extended a lockdown order on high school sports. Several days later, the Health Department reversed course and allowed the sports to continue. 

Supporters are hoping for a similar outcome this time, given the undue burden on student athletes.

As the complaint states, “High school sports provide invaluable opportunities for student-athletes to maintain and improve their health and wellness, build leadership and teamwork skills, develop life-long relationships with peers and mentors, and learn important lessons related to accountability, responsibility, and time management.”

Michigan needs to let its students play, free from arbitrary mandates. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques