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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Upper Peninsula students can’t exit COVID quarantine for football playoffs

Tiny Pickford High School, the reigning Division 1 eight-player football champions in Michigan, attempted to take football players out of coronavirus quarantine for a Friday night playoff game.

They got flagged for illegal procedure.

After word spread Friday that Pickford was thumbing its nose at health department recommendations in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 7,800 Michiganders, the Michigan High School Athletic Association stepped in and cancelled the game and forced Pickford to forfeit.

The Chippewa County Health Department recommended this week that the entire team be placed in quarantine after one player tested positive for the coronavirus. But in an emergency school board meeting Thursday night, the board voted 5-2 to remove 13 players from quarantine so they could play in the regional finals against Inland Lakes and continue the defense of their state championship.

The move stunned Inland Lakes Supt. Brad Jacobs. 

“It has the appearance that their football team is more important than the health and safety of the community,” Jacobs said. “We are disappointed that (the Pickford School Board) did not follow the health department recommendations. They put us in a position for our players to possibly be exposed.”

Coronavirus cases are rising across the Upper Peninsula. The number of new daily cases per 100,000 in Chippewa County has risen from 16 last week, to 21 on Thursday.

This is not the first time that Pickford, about 45 miles northeast of Mackinaw City, has made headlines during the pandemic. The community was the site of a 50-person retreat held at a church in October linked to a coronavirus outbreak, with participants refusing to work with contact-tracers.

Pickford Supt. Angela Nettleton and Pickford School Board President Lori Brown did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Pickford board member Erik Taylor told Bridge Michigan he was one of two board members to vote against lifting the quarantine on football players. 

He said most community members who came in person to the board meeting supported lifting the quarantine, while most people who spoke via a Zoom connection said it was inappropriate to lift the quarantine.

Taylor said the rural district, with less than 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, has followed the health department’s recommendations in the past, and that the board had never voted to lift quarantines for other students.

The district has three students who have tested positive in recent weeks, according to data posted on the district’s website.

“I voted to support the recommendation of the health department,” Taylor said. “There was contact tracing done by the school, and I guess there were (board) members who felt that contact tracing was enough to release them” from quarantine. 

Some football players who, according to the school’s contact tracing, had close contact with the infected teammate, remained in quarantine in their homes, Taylor said. The health department, though, had recommended all players be quarantined.

At about noon Friday, the MHSAA told Pickford officials that they must follow the recommendations of the local health department.

“The health departments have taken precedence through this whole thing,” said Geoff Kimmerly, MHSAA spokesperson. “If the health department says to quarantine your whole team,” that’s what a school must do.

Chippewa Health Officer Karen Senkus could not be reached for comment.

“I feel bad for the Pickford players, but this is the world we’re in right now,” Inland Lakes’ Jacobs said. “It’s garbage we have to make these decisions.”

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