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Take the shot? Schools explore vaccine mandates for student-athletes

Aallyah Wright, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

In higher education, some students at universities with vaccine mandates face severe consequences for not abiding by the rules. In August, the University of Virginia disenrolled nearly 240 students for failing to get a COVID-19 vaccine. And in other instances, undergraduate students at the University System of Maryland and Rutgers University sued their university and college for mandating vaccines. A federal judge sided with Michigan students Sept. 9 and blocked Western Michigan University from carrying out its vaccine mandate for student-athletes.

School leaders say vaccine mandates should not be seen as a punishment, but as a way for student-athletes to enjoy sports safely, after missing games last year.

Advocates for student-athletes note that sports play important roles in kids’ lives. Without sports, some student-athletes can’t receive college scholarships, and others can suffer mentally, emotionally and physically from not playing. Over the past year, COVID-19 safety restrictions have had just that effect, said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Sports Associations, an Indiana-based national sports membership organization that writes rules and guidance for high school athletics and performing arts programs.

About 31% of surveyed high school athletes reported that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their mental health, according to an article published in July in the Journal of Scientific and Technical Research. A study published in May by the Journal of Athletic Training found that adolescents who played sports during the pandemic reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and higher levels of quality of life and physical activity than those who did not.

“All of those symptoms of disengagement are as important as the good that engagement brings,” Niehoff said. “We can't forget what that was like when we didn't have the opportunity to play. If we can keep that perspective that those considerations — as we debate whether or not we want to support getting kids vaccinated — it's going to be helpful because the alternative when kids are not playing is as troubling.”

 

The National Federation of High School Sports Associations, which encourages student-athletes to get vaccinated, launched a campaign in August to spread awareness to students, coaches and staff about the safety of vaccines.

Dr. Jason Matuszak, a family sports medicine physician in Buffalo, New York, added that pauses and quarantines can affect athletes physically because they aren’t able to condition or exercise, which can cause injuries.

While he sympathizes with parents who support vaccines and those who oppose them, Matuszak urged an approach that considers the shots from a community perspective instead of an individual one, he said.

“As much as people have made this particular vaccination at this particular time a parents’ rights issue for their kids or a political issue, we don't need to view vaccination as being anything other than a public health issue,” Matuszak said. “And we really need to be very aware that certain individuals are disproportionately affected by [the coronavirus pandemic].”

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