Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Georgia public schools are grappling with how to host indoor winter sports safely as the COVID-19 pandemic flares up across the state and throughout the U.S.

Fresh off worrying about football season, school districts are prepping to play close-contact sports like basketball and wrestling in gymnasiums, which health experts say pose far greater risk for spreading the virus than outdoor stadiums.

Left largely to decide their own rules, the state’s roughly 180 school districts are taking cues from the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) to give guidance on mask-wearing, keeping safe distances between players and limiting spectators to a small fraction of the fans who normally attend games.

Robin Hines, the GHSA’s executive director, said hundreds of high-school football teams have nearly completed their seasons with only a few games being canceled each week, in part due to COVID-19 measures like limited locker-room interaction for players and fewer fans in the stands.

That success, as well as few disruptions for the indoor volleyball season during the fall, give Hines confidence Georgia’s nearly 3,000 schools will be able to safely hold athletic competitions no matter what punches COVID-19 may throw.

But sports like basketball and wrestling still feel troubling, Hines acknowledged, because closed gyms have diminished air circulation that could create hospitable grounds for coronavirus.

“We feel good about where things have gone so far, but as it gets colder and we move indoors, that’s certainly cause for concern and we’ll take a close look at things,” Hines said. “Everyone’s going to have to measure the risk-reward factor as they go.”

For basketball season, which starts this week, the jump ball has been nixed so that visiting teams take first possession to start the game and a coin toss decides overtime possession. Players on the bench must sit six feet apart, and referees’ whistles will either be electronic or have cloth coverings to block spit from spraying onto the court.

Wrestling matches will see fewer teams competing in the same gym, with dual tournaments to take place in several gyms instead of the usual one site. Sectional tournaments will be eliminated entirely.

Mats should also be sanitized frequently. Bibb County schools, for instance, will have access to a machine that sprays a sanitizing mist on wrestling mats, which takes about 10 minutes to settle and zap away germs, said the district’s athletics director, Barney Hester.

“Anything we can do to help prevent any kind of spread, we’re probably going overboard to do it,” Hester said.

Despite the optimism, public-health experts are wary of the risks indoor sports could pose for Georgia, particularly as COVID-19 cases begin climbing again.

Positive cases have crept back up in recent weeks from a daily average of just under 1,200 cases on Oct. 1 to an average of nearly 2,400 daily cases as of Thursday. Hospitalizations from the virus have also increased this month.

As of Thursday, nearly 400,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia. The virus had killed 8,569 Georgians.

Gyms hosting close-contact indoor sports represent “the riskiest place for spreading the virus to others,” said Dr. Mark Ebell, an epidemiology and biostatistics professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

The risks are even greater since high-school sports involve younger people who may not show any symptoms of COVID-19, increasing chances they could unintentionally carry the virus home to more vulnerable family members like parents and grandparents, Ebell said.

“I think it would be irresponsible to proceed with these sports, especially with spectators who would often be in higher risk groups,” Ebell said.

At least one school district, DeKalb County, has decided to postpone winter sports indefinitely for the 2020-21 school year, though athletes are still allowed to train, according to a district spokeswoman.

And while wrestling is still on for Savannah-Chatham County schools, district officials only recently reversed an earlier decision to cancel the season over health concerns, a district spokeswoman said.

Elsewhere, many of the state’s largest school districts are crafting plans to reduce the virus’ spread as much as possible this winter, hoping to let student athletes hit the court and the mats with minimal disruption and health issues.

In particular, many large districts plan to ticket fans electronically so they maintain a strict cap on attendance and drastically reduce how many people will be allowed in school gyms.

Gwinnett County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is poised to cap winter sports attendance at 150 fans — far fewer than the typical 2,300 people Gwinnett’s school gyms typically hold, according to district spokesman Bernard Watson.

Cobb County schools have pledged to shrink gym attendance to 30% occupancy through digital ticketing and pre-issued passes, with families of players, cheerleaders and pep-band members getting first dibs at tickets, according to the district’s new rules.

Macon schools likewise aim to restrict gym attendance to 100 people, way down from the typical 1,000 to 1,200 fans that the larger gyms can pack, said Bibb County’s Hester.

“We’re trying,” Hester said. “But the best you can do may not be good enough in this environment without a vaccine.”

Even with all those precautions, there appears to be little oversight from state education or public-health officials to ensure that Georgia student athletes and their fans do their best to fight off COVID-19 outbreaks while playing sports this winter.

The state Department of Education does not oversee athletics, said a spokeswoman, while the Georgia Department of Public Health intends to send health guidance on winter sports to local schools – though it’s unclear if the agency has actually done so yet.

That lack of leadership could promote a scattershot approach to keeping high-school athletes and their families safe that might contribute to worsening the virus’ spread in the coming months, said Dr. Colin Smith, a clinical assistant professor of health management and policy at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health.

Schools determined to hold winter sports should consider taking more safety measures than many are set to do, such as emulating professional sports by conducting rapid tests multiple times per week and having student athletes commit to limiting their social circles to a small group of people throughout the season, Smith said.

“If we cannot convince people not to do it, there are things we can do to minimize it,” Smith said. “But I think we may be in for some serious problems this winter.”