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Vaccination or testing: Athletes face choice to play

Students in Suffolk Public Schools who want to participate in sports or other activities will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 12 or be tested for the virus on a weekly basis after the School Board voted 6-1 in favor of the policy.

Suffolk is the first school division in Hampton Roads to adopt a vaccine or testing requirement to participate in athletics or extracurricular activities.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said the decision to recommend the new policy resulted from the high rate of COVID-19 transmission in the city with the Delta variant, including cases on the Nansemond River High School football team that led to the postponement of its game against Great Bridge last week. The city started the week with a 7-day positivity rate of 18.4%, and by Sept. 8, it was 17.7%.

He also said that with winter sports season beginning Nov. 15, there would be a limited time to get students fully vaccinated with a two-dose Pfizer vaccine by that point, and with higher rates of transmission indoors versus outdoors, time was of the essence in recommending athletes or those participating in other activities to be vaccinated. The division also wants to be proactive in urging people to get vaccinated.

“We know that the higher percentage, or rate of transmission, indoors is vastly greater,” Gordon said. “We also know before our students even came back to school that we had several cases on one of our high school football teams, and we’re trying to do whatever we can to not only reduce that spread, but we’ve got to think about those teams as well as when those who are involved in extracurricular activities then go to class for seven periods a day, that could be a potential exposure to other students.”

Sherri Story was the lone vote against the policy. She asked whether students could be exempted from vaccination if they had already had COVID-19 and had natural antibodies. Gordon said they would still need to be vaccinated, per Virginia Department of Health guidelines, and the division would provide opportunities for students — and staff — to get a first and second dose vaccination Oct. 8 and Oct. 29, respectively.

He stressed that with the Delta variant of COVID-19, and other variants, the division wants to encourage students to get vaccinated.

He said those who do not get vaccinated might still be able to participate virtually in clubs, but he stressed that though the division encourages students to play sports, it is optional, not required.

Gordon added that those who receive the COVID-19 vaccination and have a temporary side effect can have an excused absence, if needed.

Those who choose to be tested weekly for COVID-19 will receive a PCR test, the cost of which could be borne by a health provider or the division, but Gordon said it is still working out the details of that.

Those who participate in extracurricular activities in elementary school do not currently have to be vaccinated because there is no approved vaccine yet available for those under 12, but once it is, it would “probably” make a COVID-19 vaccine or testing a requirement for those students, also.