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Statewide effort lobbies policymakers to reinstate youth, high school sports

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - About 75 people gathered at Gabriel Park in Southwest Portland June 24 as part of a Let Them Play effort to rally support for resuming youth and high school sports in Oregon.Even with coronavirus cases in Oregon continuing, young athletes, their parents and coaches are understandably anxious to get back to the sports they love.

Some of them are speaking out, hoping to change a policy that has effectively shut down all contact sports in Oregon until either a vaccine or a treatment is developed for COVID-19.

On Wednesday, June 24, about 75 young athletes, parents and coaches gathered — most keeping socially distanced, some wearing masks — at Gabriel Park in Southwest Portland to rally support for a growing movement advocating for high school and youth sports to return.

That event was organized by Courtenay McKelligan and friend Kelli Spitznagel, who are concerned the loss of sports and other activities will harm their children. McKelligan organized the Gabriel Park event after learning about a statewide effort that was initiated in early June in Medford by Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer and North Medford High assistant football coach Jim Bosworth. Dyer said he started the effort out of concern that the indefinite ban on contact sports in Oregon will have long-lasting negative impacts on the mental and physical well-being of Oregon youths.

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A sign on a backstop at Gabriel Park notifies the public that the facility is closed because of COVID-19. A group advocating to let youth and high school sports happen gathered June 24 on the baseball field, and brought signs of their own.The way Dyer sees it, the physical, mental and emotional cost of stopping sports needs to be balanced against the threat of COVID-19.

"The ripples of this could last generations if we don't get through this soon," Dyer said.

Tracie McKinley-Lux, who spoke at the Gabriel Park gathering, is a licensed clinical social worker. She just completed a doctorate program, and for her research study focused on the negative impact of social isolation on individuals.

In her McMinnville practice, McKinley-Lux said she usually works with older adults, but has seen a significant jump in people ages 15 to 30 needing help.

"It's definitely concerning what lockdown is doing to our youth," McKinley-Lux said, explaining that teenagers' emotional and mental health can be significantly impacted when their routines are disrupted or they lose social networks.

"I don't know that the policymakers quite understand the depth of the impact of isolation" on young people, McKinley-Lux said.

She is not advocating for resuming sports without precautions. The way sports and activities happen might need to change. "By no means do I think we should disregard health and safety protocols," she said.

Dyer said his goal is to spark open dialogue with state leaders to explore ways to get young athletes back into action. As a county commissioner in Southern Oregon, Dyer understands the strain of governing in these times.

"I'm not going to minimize what the governor and the state have on their plate right now," Dyer said. "All we're asking for is to have a dialogue about what we can do to help get sports going."

If the nearly 26,000 members of the group's Facebook page are any indication, the push has a lot of support. Several recent posts on that page indicate some parents are moving to other states so that their high school-age children can participate in sports.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Signs on the fence send the message that parents and athletes gathered at Gabriel Park on June 24 want to promote.The Let Them Play in Oregon group is asking its Facebook members to contact elected officials and ask that sports be permitted, As of June 25, it had not had direct dialogue with the governor's office.

Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, proposed an amendment during this week's special session of the Oregon Legislature that called for banning the government from blocking participation in youth sports. Wallan's amendment was not addressed in this the special session but might be reintroduced in the next special session.

In an email, Charles Boyle, Gov. Kate Brown's deputy communications director, said the state is in discussions with stakeholders, including professional and college teams and the Oregon School Activities Association, about how and when sports might return.

Peter Weber, the executive director of the OSAA, said there is no timetable yet established for high school athletes returning to practices or competition.

Weber is in regular contact with the governor's office, the Oregon Health Department and the Oregon Department of Education. Weber said he also has frequent visits with Dr. Michael Koester, chair of the OSAA sports medicine advisory committee.

"We're trying to advocate in our communication to get things going as soon as possible," Weber said.

He noted, however, that as school-based activities, one hurdle to getting high school sports going is to have schools open, at least to some extent.

The first day of practices for Oregon high school fall sports is Aug. 17. Weber said there is not a go/no-go date set for fall sports to happen.

"I hope for more clarity in the coming weeks," Weber said.

Boyle said the governor's position is that the coronavirus risk currently outweighs the many benefits provided from participating in sports.

"The decisions our office makes regarding COVID-19 are being guided by science and health outcomes, and the current recommendation we have received from health experts is that it is not yet safe for Oregon's youth to return to participating in contact sports, without risking spreading the disease throughout our communities," Boyle said.

Boyle noted that counties in Phase 1 and Phase 2 of reopening allow for athletes to return to training if they adhere to strict protocols.

The prospect of actual competition feels a long way off, though.

"Whether public health experts will recommend allowing further sports activities to operate by issuing additional Phase 2 guidance will depend on how the disease is behaving in our communities and what safeguards organizations can put in place in order to operate safely and protect public health," Boyle said.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Courtenay McKelligan speaks during a July 24 rally she organized to promote efforts to convince state leaders to let youth and high school sports resume.Boyle noted that youth and high school sports programs don't have the resources that colleges and pro teams do to implement safeguards such as testing for COVID-19 and isolating those who test positive.

Dyer recognizes that challenge, but said he is confident youth and high school sports can look at what college programs are doing and adopt at least some of those protocols.

McKinley-Lux, the social worker who spoke at Gabriel Park, said that means adapting to a new normal and finding creative ways to create opportunities for young athletes.

Dyer said his motivation is to keep sports and athletes on the front burner as the government forms policy for the changing COVID-19 landscape.

McKinley-Lux believes that push is vital.

"We're going to lose a whole generation of kids if we don't address this," she said. "It scares me that we're not taking them into account."

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