Maskless football team celebration spurs COVID-19 testing and public health concerns

Players forced to prove vaccination status or show a negative rapid test following indoor celebration led by coaches and athletic director

By Cuyler Dunn and Kenna McNally

After a post-game celebration led by unmasked coaches and an unmasked athletic director, the Lawrence High school varsity football players have been forced to prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or receive negative rapid test results before returning to practice.

The indoor event didn’t follow district protocols and raised concerns from public health officials. The testing protocols kicked in after an athlete tested positive and a video of the celebration came to light.

“I would say, if anything, that you should hope to see people that engage in athletic activity taking greater precautions because it is a riskier activity,” said Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Department Communications Officer Daniel Smith. “When it comes to being indoor and in communal spaces, those individuals should be acting as anybody else would in a crowded place.”

In a message sent Wednesday afternoon via sportsYou, a team messaging app, Head Coach Clint Bowen told players to report to the school nurse’s office to show proof of vaccination or complete a rapid test. Bowen emphasized the urgency of this with a final message reading, “this has to be done NOW!”

The celebration unfolded after the team won its Homecoming game on Oct. 8, led by assistant coach Jeff Lyster. Lyster was acting as head coach after Bowen was ejected from the previous game and was required to sit out the following match-up.

After a dominant 49-9 win over Shawnee Mission South on Homecoming night, the team gathered in the expanded weight room. A video posted to the team’s official Instagram account showed Athletic Director Mike Gillman entering the weight room before the room’s large garage doors were closed. No one in the space is seen wearing a mask. The videos from Friday’s celebration were removed sometime between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. Another video showing a similar celebration after a Sept. 19 win has also been removed.

In the video, Gillman congratulates the team and alludes to Bowen’s absence before Bowen surprises the team from the back of the room, initiating a large celebration involving players and coaches packed together, yelling and spraying water bottles across the room.

Gillman said he didn’t regret the decision to celebrate with the team in that manner, despite district rules that require wearing masks inside.

“I think it was the right decision at the time,” he said.

Gillman said he wanted to support Coach Bowen and the team.

“After Coach Bowen’s ejection the week before, I felt as the leader of the athletic department to make sure that I showed them my support behind their coach,” he said. “When we have these things that happen, then I show my support for the team.” 

The incident comes at a time when positive COVID-19 cases are declining in Douglas County but remain at a rate that the CDC deems “high transmission.”

“Our community is doing a pretty good job overall as far as our numbers, as far as new cases popping up and everything,” Smith said, “but that’s only because people have been doing such a good job with precautions and so, for me, in my professional capacity, I haven’t seen this video, but it definitely sounds like not the sort of behavior that we would encourage.”

Smith said the possibility of COVID-positive athletes involved in the indoor, maskless celebration, means testing and quarantining would be a necessary precaution in order to prevent further spread.

“If individuals tested positive who were in this video or in these places,” he said, “it would definitely be important to get everyone else that was there tested and have the individuals that tested positive quarantine appropriately.”

Until recently, positive tests could have kept the team from competing. But the district late last month stopped requiring quarantines for unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 at school as long as they take part in daily testing. Vaccinated students are asked to prove their status.

Due to the rise in the far more contagious Delta variant, younger people are more at risk of COVID-19 infection, especially those who are unvaccinated.

“We have seen a lot more younger individuals, not just getting COVID, but seeing some pretty unfortunate results from illness,” Smith said. “Anybody who is unvaccinated honestly should be wearing protective masks and taking precautions at all times and in any sort of public situation.”

Although COVID-19 protocols are not a perfect solution, Smith said that doing the best you can is key to limiting spread.

“It is pretty much impossible to do everything perfectly all of the time,” he said, “so it is just about trying to do what can be reasonably expected to give yourselves the best chance of not spreading the disease.”

Coaches and other adults can play an important role in influencing safer behaviors from their athletes, Smith said.

“The fact that they themselves are not engaging in suggested protective measures is definitely also going to be detrimental,” he said. “When you think of a coach, that is definitely someone who is very influential, and leading by example would definitely be very beneficial in a situation like this.” 

When asked about the event, Gillman said that the celebration was a carry-over of celebrations on the field.

“I think the excitement of the football win and then getting close contact is something that they do every second of the game when they are out there with multiple kids,” he said, “breaking it down, being next to each other. I think that was just a carry-over of that celebration. I don’t think it was the intent of having that, but it is definitely something that we should consider, and we have addressed that as well.”

Bowen said gatherings in the weight room allow time to provide players with “fluids and snacks to begin the recovery process” and review announcements, injury protocols and future schedules.

“…and when we win, we celebrate,” he said. “The players get fluids immediately and the total process takes about three minutes.”

Bowen related the celebration to other situations where people have gone maskless indoors, like the lunchroom and when administrators, district employees and others involved with the construction project took them off for a picture at the Oct. 9 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Some situations take place that wearing a mask gets overlooked,” he said. “Our team celebrations fell into this category. We will continue to strive to be compliant with the guidelines and procedures and make the corrections necessary to ensure the safety of our students.”

Gillman also related the celebration to the lunchroom, where kids take their masks off inside during the school day.

“We treated it kind of like the lunchroom,” he said, “where everyone has their mask off when they are eating lunch, I think that is kind of how they did it.” 

Even though students do take masks off inside during lunch, that action is allowed by the district, the same way athletes can take their masks off when actively participating in athletic events. All administration and staff are masked for the entirety of lunch. 

Outdoors, data suggests COVID-19 spread is much lower. The district doesn’t require masks when students are outside for recess or packing the stands at football games, although the CDC says distancing is still preferred, even outside.

In addition to the district policy of requiring masks indoors, it also states that athletes should wear masks inside when not engaged in active play. The Kansas State High School Activities Association offers only mitigation techniques for schools to “consider,” including that they, “continue to reinforce the benefits of good personal hygiene and respiratory etiquette among your students.”

After engaging in testing, most players returned to practice to prepare for their road contest on Oct. 15 against Olathe North.

The Budget also reached out to the district’s executive director of communications Julie Boyle and health service facilitator Sonja Gaumer as well as Lawrence High Principal Jessica Bassett. They did not respond before the publishing of this article. Coach Jeffrey Lyster declined to comment.