Local families push for athletes to return to the field despite outbreaks, shutdowns on Whitman teams

Many of the students’ exposures were due to their attendance at parties and other social events

Walter+Johnson+high+school+football+players+pose+for+a+photo+at+the+March+14+%E2%80%9CLet+Us+Play%E2%80%9D+rally.+About+100+MCPS+student+athletes%2C+parents+and+coaches+gathered+to+protest+restrictions+on+sports%2C+despite+coronavirus+outbreaks+on+Whitman+teams.+

Lily Freeman

Walter Johnson high school football players pose for a photo at the March 14 “Let Us Play” rally. About 100 MCPS student athletes, parents and coaches gathered to protest restrictions on sports, despite coronavirus outbreaks on Whitman teams.

By Lily Freeman, Walt Whitman High School

To respect wishes for privacy, some students’ names have been withheld.

Some protest leaders attempt to excite crowds with elaborate chants, but not Walter Johnson High School senior David Gardner. Leaping on top of a wall in front of the Montgomery County Council Office Building on March 14, Gardner kept it short and sweet.

“It’s not fair!” Gardner yelled to about 100 protestors below him. The crowd enthusiastically joined in the chant, clapping along rhythmically. “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

Students gather during the rally (Lily Freeman)

To passersby, Gardner could have been protesting a tax hike, a new standardized testing requirement or any of the other wide-ranging issues that might appear before the Council. To the student athletes, parents and coaches arrayed before him, however, Gardner’s message was clear: he wanted to play football.

MCPS’ fall sports season was severely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The season, which would typically start up in August, began on February 27. At that time, teams could hold practices, but athletes couldn’t play in games. On March 12, MCPS updated its athletic guidelines to allow players in several “low and medium risk” sports — like field hockey and soccer — to engage in scrimmages starting March 15. But athletes who play in “high risk” sports — including football, cheerleading and poms — remain barred from competition, since these sports require excessive physical contact.

MCPS’ announcement frustrated some of these “high risk” athletes, who claimed that weeks earlier, the county had implied that all teams would eventually play games. Several county families — including Gardner’s — immediately set to work on organizing the March 14 rally to demand that MCPS ease its athletic guidelines.

“We had a whole thing set by the county to follow, and we’ve been following it, and then they just come out of nowhere with this decision to not let us play games,” Gardner said. “It’s horrible; it’s heartbreaking for me as a senior.”

Students from at least 12 different MCPS high schools attended the demonstration. The Black & White could not identify any participants from Whitman, possibly because several Whitman athletes were already preoccupied that day: they were in quarantine.

Barely a week after the school’s sports practices began on March 1, the County Department of Health and Human Services discovered that at least one Whitman varsity football player had tested positive for coronavirus, causing officials to shut down his pod’s practices on March 9. The DHHS allowed most of his teammates to return the next day, but on March 11, the agency shut down the other varsity football pod after learning of more positive tests. Players in that pod have been banned from practice until March 26 — the day before spring break. 

No fewer than four field hockey players and one pom teammate also missed team gatherings in mid-March after hearing that friends they spent time with tested positive for coronavirus. Many of the students’ exposures were due to their attendance at parties and other social events outside of sports practices, according to teammates familiar with their situations.

The outbreaks have prevented teams from fully engaging in practices and have dashed many athletes’ hopes of playing games in the near future — all while stirring fears of coronavirus infections mere weeks before Whitman is set to reopen to seniors.  

“Knowing that a lot of people on sports teams are going to be going back to school as well as me causes me a little bit of fear,” senior Kat Gorlenko said. “People’s relaxation about the whole thing over time — that is definitely a concern of mine.”

In early March, one Whitman athlete became agitated when she learned that one of her teammates had been in contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. The athlete rushed to get tested and eventually received a negative result, but the incident was unnerving, she said.

“I can’t really speak for anyone else, but we were all pretty anxious,” she said. “I’m just relieved that this has all just been a scare, because it could have been potentially a lot more dangerous. It’s a miracle that we’re even having a season, so it’s pretty disappointing to see that our season could have ended all because of one person or one party.”

The “scares” have hindered many teams’ practices, even outside of football. After two field hockey players began quarantining on March 9, junior varsity field hockey coach Amanda Cohen, concerned over safety, held her pod from progressing from “the basics” to offensive and defensive drills that week. Not being able to advance on schedule has been “definitely frustrating at times,” Cohen said. 

For varsity football players in the practicing pod, their suspended teammates’ absences have been especially disheartening, said football player Simon Merenstein. Since neither pod has a full aggregate of players at all positions, Merenstein’s pod couldn’t play without the other one, even if the county were to update the safety guidelines.

“This is going to screw most of our season over,” Merenstein said. “Even after they get back, it’s spring break, and then we have two weeks left of potential games.”

Athletic director Andy Wetzel declined to provide The Black & White with the number of Whitman sports players who have reported exposure to coronavirus since their practices began. However, this information wouldn’t violate the confidentiality regulations for student records.

“Whitman, just like every other sports organization in the world, is having to deal with the ramifications of COVID-19,” Wetzel wrote in an email to the newspaper. “This is not unique to Whitman.”  

As of March 13, however, only one student athlete at neighboring Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School had informed the school of a coronavirus exposure, said the school’s athletic director, Michael Krawczel. The student — a boys soccer player — began quarantining shortly after learning of his situation, allowing the rest of the soccer team to continue conducting practices as normal. All other B–CC fall sports teams’ practices have also run smoothly, Krawczel said.

“[I’m] hoping that we continue to be lucky,” Krawczel said.

The fall sports season ends on April 17, and then it’s on to the spring season. For the varsity football players returning to practice after spring break, they’ll have less than two weeks with their team this year, leaving seniors with a bitter end to four years of camaraderie. Still, the players’ return to the field depends on their abilities to remain COVID-free.

“With the issues of the way the football team is handling it, I don’t believe every single student is going to follow every protocol to make sure that everyone’s safe,” said one Whitman football player. “It does raise some issues. We’ve all been told to be safe, but a few people think that they’re better than the rest of us and decide to do whatever they want. And they know who they are.”

This story was originally published on The Black & White on March 18, 2021.