‘Use common sense’: Parents frustrated with Lawrence school district’s COVID-19 testing program for some athletes

photo by: Contributed photo

Free State High School wrestler Matthew Marcum, in green, was barred from participating with the team for almost two weeks after he tested positive for COVID-19 through the school district's mandatory testing for athletes.

When the Lawrence school district recently began a mandatory COVID-19 testing program for its middle and high school students and staff participating in “high-risk” athletics, Traci and David Marcum quickly grew frustrated.

Their son, Matthew Marcum, a Free State High School wrestler who is currently ranked fifth in the state’s 6A 170-pound weight class, tested positive for the virus through the program, despite showing no symptoms. The test result meant Matthew had to quarantine for at least 10 days and miss wrestling practice and meets.

But the family said they weren’t sure that the test result was accurate, as they had heard about false-positive tests many times before. So they had Matthew tested twice after; both showed negative results, they said, suggesting he did not actually contract the virus.

Despite their evidence, the district would not budge. Matthew was not allowed to return to the team until his quarantine was complete.

“I know it’s an evolving situation with COVID,” David Marcum said. “But at the same time, I try to use common sense in these situations, and I think that’s the frustration we’ve had with the school district.”

The Marcums are just one of the Lawrence families who are frustrated with the district’s new testing program. Clint Bradley, the father of Free State wrestler Nolan Bradley, said he and several other parents think the testing program is unfair to wrestlers and basketball players, noting that the testing program was installed halfway through their seasons, is not being applied to other winter activities and was not used in the fall.

Meanwhile, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said the school district began testing students participating in activities that Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health identified as posing a high risk for virus spread, including basketball and wrestling, because of the close contact among participants. She said the program was meant to minimize their exposure to the virus.

“Lawrence Public Schools’ top priority is the safety of students and staff,” Boyle said in an email. “In order to mitigate the risk of the spread of the virus, the district has required all students and staff involved with middle and high school basketball and wrestling to participate in COVID-19 testing.”

The testing program is another example of how the Lawrence district has responded to the coronavirus pandemic differently from nearby schools, as none of the other three districts serving Douglas County students has instituted such a program. Officials for the Baldwin City, Eudora and Perry-Lecompton districts said they did not have mandatory testing programs for athletes.

Boyle said the district began testing athletes on Jan. 13 at the high schools and Jan. 25 at the middle schools, and the tests are conducted every other week by the district’s nursing staff. According to a district email sent to Bradley, the decision to test athletes came from the district’s COVID-19 advisory committee, which includes a collection of district faculty, staff and administrators as well as some parents.

Additionally, the saliva PCR tests the district uses for the program are considered “the gold standard” for accuracy by the local health community, Boyle said. The district partnered with the health department and LMH Health to provide the tests, so it came at no cost to the district.

But some parents still think the program is unfair and unreliable.

Because Matthew Marcum tested positive, his sister McKenzie, who plays for the Free State girls basketball team, and his wrestling practice partner were also required to quarantine because of the district’s close-contact policies. The Marcums said all three appear to have been held out of athletics because of a false-positive result.

That outcome occurred because of the health department’s contact-tracing protocols, which call for those who were within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for the virus and those who live in the same home as someone who tested positive to also quarantine. Additionally, district and health department officials previously told the Journal-World that students could not “test out” of orders to quarantine because of the long incubation period for the virus.

Noting the Marcums’ situation, Bradley said he and other parents feared their children could face a false-positive result in the upcoming round of tests. That could prevent those athletes from participating in the postseason, which begins soon. That would be particularly hard for Bradley’s son Nolan, a sophomore who wrestles in the 106-pound weight class and is currently second in the state’s 6A rankings.

But Bradley said he was not arguing against the program just for his son’s benefit. He said several parents had these concerns and did not think the program should be used. Additionally, the testing was not used in the fall for football, which was also considered a high-risk activity by the health department.

Bradley also said the athletes have already made sacrifices this school year to make sure they could compete, including taking classes completely remotely to cut down on the amount of time they interact with others.

“Our kids have proven since the beginning of November they will limit their social activity, they quarantine themselves, they (go to school remotely) and they don’t see their teachers and don’t see their friends,” Bradley said. “They go to practice and they have competitions on the weekends, and that’s it.”

While the testing frustrates those parents, the program may be helping wrestling continue by showing that the athletes are not contracting the virus through the activity.

Wrestling, specifically, was almost canceled altogether this season because of concerns about close contact among participants in the sport, which is conducted indoors, unlike the fall sports. Officials for the health department told the Lawrence school board in the fall that they didn’t think it could be done safely during the pandemic, the Journal-World reported.

But the health department ultimately determined wrestling could continue if mitigation practices, like mask wearing, were in place. Regular testing itself also is considered a mitigation practice.

The testing has largely shown that the students aren’t contracting the virus. So far, only five have tested positive after 321 tests, according to the district’s data.

However, Bradley pointed to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said testing should be voluntary. The parents do not believe the testing is voluntary because the athletes must test to participate in their sports.

But Boyle said that those who are tested must provide written consent to be tested. She added that the district did not believe the program was unfair because students don’t have a guaranteed right to participate in athletics.

“Participation in athletics is a privilege, not a right or a school requirement,” Boyle said. “With a safety issue as significant as a global pandemic, the district is responsible for using all appropriate mitigation measures, including testing, to protect the health and safety of students and staff and maintain safe learning environments.”

Bradley said he expected that the district would suggest athletics weren’t a student right. But he thinks that is an incorrect view, as athletics are part of the public school system’s role to help form well-balanced individuals.

He said he would hope anyone working in public education understood the importance of athletics and that schools existed to provide students with education and other opportunities.

“Your experience in school consists of all these things,” Bradley said. “It’s not just learning algebra. It’s all the things that make you a well-rounded individual.”

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