Alexis Jones, a senior softball player at Rockdale County High School, holds up a sign expressing her feelings about the delay of fall athletics during a protest on Aug. 24. On Wednesday, the school system announced plans to begin fall athletics over the next few weeks.

CONYERS – Rockdale County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Terry Oatts announced Wednesday that the school system will begin high school athletic competition in the coming weeks. According to Oatts, softball, volleyball and cross-country teams may begin active competition effective the week of Sept. 28, and football teams may begin competition effective the week of Oct. 12.

Oatts said he reached this decision after “careful consultation and deliberation.”

“For the last several months, we have continued to monitor our local, regional and statewide public health data to inform our decisions regarding fall sports competition,” said Oatts. “In May, I impaneled a Fall Sports Working Group for the purpose of thoroughly reviewing all aspects of the viability of proceeding with fall sports conditioning and active competition during fall semester. This working group has since expanded its focus to include a comprehensive review of all our district’s athletic programs for the 2020-21 school year. As superintendent, I required that each of our fall and spring sports develops detailed safety plans for both conditioning and active competition for review by our working team and our regional health department.”

Oatts had previously decided to suspend fall athletics until the second semester, when in-person instruction is also slated to resume. Oatts said his initial decision to suspend fall sports was based on local COVID-19 data, which indicated accelerated infection rates at that time. “During the last month, our local data has improved somewhat,” said Oatts. “However, our public health data remains fluid though marginally improved.”

Oatts said that athletic participation is voluntary and no student-athlete who chooses not to participate due to health and safety concerns will be penalized.

Students and athletic personnel who do elect to compete or otherwise participate in athletics do so fully understanding the risks associated with such participation which now include the prospect of contracting COVID-19 due to possible exposure during conditioning, practice or active competition, according to the school system.

RCPS adheres to the relevant public health guidance on addressing such potential COVID-19 exposure and reserves the discretion to require additional mitigation measures for student-athletes and athletic personnel during the public health crisis.

Oatts also acknowledged that it is reasonable to question allowing athletic competition to resume while schools are still closed and students are learning virtually.

However, he said, there are “significant differences of scale in planning for a reasonably safe fall sports season for a much smaller segment of student-athletes utilizing the full scope of athletic fields and facilities versus reintegrating thousands of students back to in-person instruction. Other significant differences include the duration of students’ engagement with teachers/staff for protracted segments of instruction inside classrooms versus athletic conditioning, practice and competition that is disproportionately conducted outdoors due to the nature of most of our fall sports.”

More details on additional safety measures will be forthcoming at www.rockdaleschools.org/reopening.

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I have been editor of the Rockdale Citizen since 1996 and editor of the Newton Citizen since it began publication in 2004. I am also currently executive editor of the Clayton News Daily, Henry Daily Herald and Jackson Progress-Argus.

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