High school athletes and marching bands are taking the field across central Ohio as the fall sports season begins — and many are leaving their masks behind.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has encouraged athletes to get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying it’s the «ticket» to allowing athletes to live up to their dreams and compete.
The state is allowing individual school districts to decide what COVID-19 protocols to put in place when it comes to sports and extracurricular activities, such as band, as concerns about the virus pick up again.
As cases continue to rise throughout Ohio due to the highly contagious delta variant, Franklin County and five other counties in central Ohio have jumped to the second-highest level on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 transmission map.
More: High school football players, coaches embrace feeling of normalcy as padded practices begin
“It’s really different from school district to school district,” said Ann Usher, president of Ohio Music Education Association. 
Columbus City Schools students participating in outdoor sports activities, practices and extracurriculars — including marching band and drill team — are not required to wear masks, according to Columbus City Schools’ website.
Spectators are also not required to wear masks for outdoor activities, but 6 feet of social distancing is recommended. 
For indoor events, students will be required to wear masks if they are not actively participating. Fans will be required to wear masks and 6 feet of social distancing is recommended. 
The Ohio Department of Health issued its guidance for K-12 schools, including sports and extracurricular activities, ahead of the 2021-2022 academic year. 
Students should refrain from activities if they have COVID-19 symptoms and get tested, the department said. Masks and social distancing to the extent possible are also recommended during indoor sports and higher-risk activities to protect students not fully vaccinated.
While the Ohio High School Athletic Association isn’t issuing any COVID-19 mandates for fall sports, it is encouraging masks and vaccines for coaches and student-athletes.
The OHSAA is also urging those who are unvaccinated to maintain social distancing and to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor facilities.
“We’re hoping for a normal school year,” said Tim Stried, an OHSAA spokesman. “We’re hoping for packed crowds at our school’s games.”
Researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Maryland studied the spread of COVID-19 through respiratory aerosol in performing arts activities. 
More: Westerville Schools, Gahanna-Jefferson are the first suburban districts to require masks this fall
The study, which was last updated July 9, recommends maximum 50-minute indoor rehearsals but said outdoor rehearsals are preferred.
«Because it’s outside, it’s safer and I think most band directors are comfortable with the regular amount of spacing and no masks outside,» Usher said. “The good thing about the fall is hopefully the weather can cooperate and most bands can rehearse outside.” 
Masks are recommended while singing and speaking indoors, according to the study.
Columbus City Schools is mandating masks inside school buildings, but Centennial High School’s marching band doesn’t have to wear masks outside.
The school’s band director Danny Gleich said he couldn’t be more excited about the new season, which will focus on celebrating.
«Let’s celebrate being together again, let’s celebrate making music again, let’s celebrate being a band family again,” he said. 
Centennial’s first show will be Aug. 20 at Grandview Heights High School, where they will be playing «Celebration» by Kool & the Gang, «Happy» by Pharrell and «I Gotta Feeling» by the Black Eyed Peas. 
“I’m looking forward to Friday night lights with the students performing and giving it their all on the field again,” Gleich said. “I think students are eager to get back to something larger than them and be involved.”
Since everything is up to each district, COVID-19 protocols for marching bands will vary across the state, Usher said. 
At this point, the Ohio Music Education Association is still planning to host its regular, in-person state marching band finals on Oct. 30 and 31 and Nov. 6 and 7, she said.
Central Ohio high school football players had their first day of padded practice last Monday.
More: 6 central Ohio counties jump to second-highest level on CDC COVID map: What it means for you
“Everything just feels like it’s falling into place and it’s not a struggle like last year was. It’s just so much smoother,” said Ryan Sayers, the football coach at Northland High School in Columbus.
For Westerville schools, masks are optional at outdoor events for spectators but strongly encouraged for unvaccinated people, Westerville Superintendent John R. Kellogg said in a letter to families Monday night.
Physical distancing of 6 feet between families will be required for outdoor events, the district’s letter said.
Masks and physical distancing of at least 3 feet will be required for spectators at indoor events.
In Worthington City Schools, teams are practicing as they were pre-pandemic, district spokeswoman Vicki Gnezda said in an email.
In South-Western City Schools, masks are recommended, but not required in their stadiums, district spokeswoman Sandy Nekoloff said in an email.  
On Thursday, the Biden Administration announced additional efforts for COVID-19 vaccinations for the back-to-school season.
Among these efforts was a consensus statement between 12 sports and health organizations urging all medical providers to ask about vaccination status during sports physicals and administering them when applicable, according to a White House fact sheet.
The AAP estimates that 60% to 70% of kids participate in organized sports nationwide, with millions of student-athletes receiving the pre-participation exam in order to participate.  
Dispatch reporters Asia Atuah and Bailey Johnson contributed to this story.
mhenry@dispatch.com 
@megankhenry 

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