The Eagan girls’ soccer team left the field Friday after completing its first week of practice and looking ahead to a season-opening game on Thursday.

Late that afternoon, however, the season was suddenly put on hold. A positive test for COVID-19 prompted the school to shut down the girls’ program, from varsity through ninth-grade levels.

Notified via e-mail from the school that afternoon, players were urged to get tested for the coronavirus, whether they were experiencing symptoms or not. They were advised to “stay home until Sept. 2,” even if test results were negative.

The two-week shutdown meant the Wildcats’ first three varsity games, including two with Shakopee, had to be postponed. In a season already shortened in weeks and games by the Minnesota State High School League, those postponements represent another 25% bite out of their schedule. The earliest they could practice again is Sept. 3.

“The key question parents want answered is, why can’t the players who test negative return to practice and play games if enough of the team has a negative test?”
Jeff Eckerle, Eagan parent

The school’s other three girls’ teams suffered the same fate, leaving all of their opponents for those games with holes on their schedules.

Among the hardest hit was Shakopee, which had scheduled back-to-back games against Eagan on Thursday and Saturday, hewing to conferences’ attempts to pair opponents from the same schools in quick-turnaround situations to limit inter-team contacts.

It’s a scenario likely to play out again, and perhaps already is, as Minnesota’s 500 high schools navigate the precarious dance of restarting sports in an environment where even one COVID case quickly causes ripples far beyond the field of play.

Eagan athletes and parents were left to wonder: What happened? Why a widespread 14-day shutdown, especially when pro sports such as baseball get back to playing sooner after positive tests? Why can’t players start practicing and playing games once they’ve tested negative?

A communication sent Friday and addressed to “Eagan Girls Soccer Families” from school officials said the Minnesota Department of Health identified “a positive case of COVID-19 [novel coronavirus] who had contact with the Eagan Girls Soccer Program all levels on August 17-19, 2020, at Eagan High School fields.”

The time period corresponds to the first three days of practice for the four teams. The letter avoided identifying the source of the positive test.

“Your child has been identified as having close contact with the case, that is, having spent at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of the case,” it read. “As a close contact, your child needs to stay home until Sept. 2.”

The letter, signed by athletic director Sandra Setter Larsen, head coach Shari Eckstrom and two school health officials, said, “We understand that this may create unease in our community.”

‘Close contact’ questioned

Families were left to wonder why all four girls’ teams were shut down, given that each was following state guidelines for pod sizes and social distancing. The nature of the practices — full of drills, running and movement — makes it unlikely that athletes were within 6 feet of anyone for much more than a few seconds, let alone 15 minutes, they said.

They also questioned why players who subsequently test negative were advised to remain at home for what amounts to the duration of the two-week team shutdown.

“The key question parents want answered is, why can’t the players who test negative return to practice and play games if enough of the team has a negative test?” said Jeff Eckerle, whose daughter is a senior on the team.

The 14-day stay-at-home recommendation even for negative tests is posted on the health department’s website.

“A negative test is only as good as the day it was taken,” health department spokesman Doug Schultz said in an e-mail.

“Hopefully, it will be a learning experience. It’s unfortunate that we have to be the learning experience.”
Andrea Newton, parent

Kris Ehresmann, the health department’s director of infectious disease epidemiology, said, “The point of the test is to identify positives quickly. But the incubation period for COVID is 14 days. If you test negative at two to three days, there are 11 to 12 days left in the incubation period in which you could develop illness. That is why a negative test doesn’t release you from quarantine.”

Schultz added that “close contact” of 15 minutes within 6 feet also is standard for gauging COVID exposure. He added that “determining the amount of contact is difficult” in fast-moving sports situations where player interaction and activity level (including breathing) might vary.

Parent Andrea Newton said her daughter, also a senior on the team, has received a negative test result and was told by her doctor there is no medical reason she couldn’t return to practice. Newton, a dentist who is familiar with COVID protocols and quarantines in her practice, believes the school is being overly cautious given the exposure risk during the three days of practice.

Eckerle said the outcome “leaves parents feeling like government [MDH and school districts] is taking the safest approach possible rather than taking logical risks. And we scratch our heads to understand the risk they are afraid of when it is common practice to sign waivers to participate.”

Hoping to learn from it

Before the season began, the high school league sent all schools a “COVID notification” for participants. It says, in part, that the league “cannot guarantee that students or other individuals participating in organized athletic activities will not be exposed to COVID-19. Participants and their parents/legal guardians should consider the risks before participating.”

Tony Taschner, a spokesman for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, said protocols have been in place all summer when COVID-related situations have arisen in community sports. Decisions on establishing who was in close contact with those individuals are made by district health and sports officials.

“Obviously you’ve got to make some judgments,” Taschner said. “People can have different opinions on things.”

Parents are hopeful the teams’ postponed games can be rescheduled, though restrictions on how often they can play each week could make that difficult. Plans for team pictures, scheduled for last Monday, also had to be scrapped because players had to stay home.

Newton said she believes the Eagan situation will show that contracting the coronavirus “being outside with soccer [is] a real hard transmission to get.”

“Hopefully, it will be a learning experience,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to be the learning experience.”