Suffolk Public Schools require COVID-19 vaccinations for all athletes beginning in November

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Suffolk’s policy regarding COVID-19 vaccinations for athletes more clearly.

Beginning Nov. 12, all high school and middle school athletes in Suffolk must be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests if they want to play sports.

Suffolk Public Schools made the decision, hoping to keep athletes safe as the numbers of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.

Anthonette Ward, Community Engagement Officer at Suffolk Public Schools, said it was necessary.

“If we’re going to have the children play sports, then this is the best way to try to manage it without interrupting their season,” she said. “They do need to be fully vaccinated by this fall or they’ll be required to submit a negative PCR test once a week.”

Making students wear masks in school is one thing, but trying to have them comply with the mitigation strategies in athletics is more difficult.

“Realistically, you can’t expect athletes to remain 6 feet apart while they’re playing sports,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense.

“Additionally, we still have athletes who are traveling. We have students going to away games. We have students coming to our division and our students are visiting other divisions. So that can also increase the spread of COVID. On top of the fact when students are engaging in activities, they can’t wear their masks.”

Ward said a message was sent to parents earlier this week.

“It was pretty much a split response,” she said. “I, of course, had parents who did not agree with the decision. They felt as though it wasn’t one that was fair. They thought that if we were going to vaccinate or require vaccinations for athletes, then we should require vaccinations for all students.

“We are focusing on the athletes right now because they just can’t comply with the mitigation strategies.”

The decision comes a week after Fairfax County Public Schools decided that all students participating in athletics for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year will be required to get inoculated.

The requirement there goes into effect Nov. 8, to allow time for students to comply. All students must be fully vaccinated by that date. It’s the first school system in the state to adopt a vaccine mandate for student-athletes.

“Vaccinating our students is a critical step in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and minimizing any disruption to learning,” Fairfax County Superintendent Scott S. Brabrand wrote in a letter to the school community. “The majority of pauses to instruction for our high school students come as a result of exposure during athletic activities, which the Virginia Department of Education classifies as a high-risk activity.”

Suffolk Public Schools join a growing list of other divisions around the state to follow Fairfax County’s lead, including Arlington Public Schools, Charlottesville City Schools, Danville Public Schools, Fredericksburg City Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools.

“Hopefully, we’ll see others start to make the decision as well,” Ward said.

Larry Rubama, 757-446-2273, Follow @LHRubama on Twitter.