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HBCU leagues in hotspots pushing vax as COVID surges

The SIAC and SWAC are two HBCU athletic conferences located in low vaccination areas, but are holding up high standards.

The SIAC and the SWAC are two HBCU conferences located in the heart of the COVID-19 surge related to delta variant outbreak. Both conferences were being proactive even prior to the NCAA releasing its guidelines.

The guidelines from the NCAA call for testing, quarantine, isolation and other athletic and non-athletic activity considerations for unvaccinated and fully-vaccinated Tier I individuals. They do not require vaccination, however. 

“Current vaccination rates remain inadequate to provide community-level immunity,” NCAA Chief Medical Officer Briann Hairline said. “It is essential that member schools work in concert with federal, state and local public health officials to develop COVID-19 prevention and management strategies that make sense for them.”

The SIAC is taking a much tougher stance. Earlier this month the Division II league announced its COVID-19 policy that requires student-athletes to be vaccinated. 

“Within the context of rising COVID-19 infection rates, student-athletes are a particularly vulnerable stakeholder group who, as a result of their athletic participation, are required to travel off-campus and compete against and interact with student-athletes on other campuses,” SIAC Commissioner Gregory Moore stated.  “These athletic-related activities not only increase the risk of exposure to our student-athletes, but also increase the risk of exposure to their classmates and other campus stakeholder once those athletes return to campus.”

The conference was the first to postpone the 2020 football season
due to COVID-19 in 2020. Its member institutions are located in some of the hottest spots for COVID-19 infections and some of the lowest vaccination percentages

“The SIAC policy decision establishing vaccination as prerequisite to intercollegiate athletic competition participation is guided by the overarching interest to protect the health and safety of SIAC student-athletes, and was decided in the light of overwhelming data and evidence which has demonstrated the effectiveness of authorized COVID-19 vaccines combating coronavirus as well as its delta variant,” Moore said. 

The SWAC, occupies many of the same hotspots as the SIAC, and more with the likes of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Its commissioner, Dr. Charles McClleland, told HBCU Gameday at its media day that while the Division I conference is not requiring vaccination it is strongly encouraged. 

COVID protocols will be removed for the vaccinated in the SWAC. Non-vaccinated individuals will have to test three times per week including one day of game. Isolation, fourteen-day quarantines, masks and social distancing will be required as well.

“It’s going to be next to impossible for you to finish your football season if you aren’t vaccinated,” McClelland said. “Don’t put your football team in jeopardy, because there’s somebody waiting to take your slot because you chose not to get vaccinated.”

McClelland said it’s not just for football, it’s for the safety of everyone involved, as the SWAC currently plans to allow fans and opposing bands in the stands. It wants the full HBCU gameday experience, but it has to be safe.

“We’re going to go back to our original rules. If you don’t play a scheduled conference game, that game is going to result into a forfeiture. There’s not gonna be any more of the waving of the magic wand as we had to in the COVID era. That game is going down as a forfeiture. Depending on the circumstances you could get fined from the conference.”

In addition to fines, if a visiting team has to pull out of a game, that team will have to return that home game in a future year. That’s what happened to Alcorn State this spring as it became the only SWAC team not to play game. 

“We have vaccines that have been proven to work,” McClelland said. “We understand that there are exemptions from a medical standpoint and a health standpoint and a religious standpoint. So we want to honor that, but we want to put the responsibility on the individual. If you want to play football, vaccinations are going to be required for you to help your team win a championship.”

So far, there has been pretty good compliance.

Morehouse College football coach Rich Freeman said his numbers were north of 90 percent a little over a week after the SIAC announced its policy.

“Our kids, they understand,” Freeman said. “We have mothers and grandmothers, and with the new delta variant, it’s gone from affecting mothers and grandmothers, now to affecting the young — the youth. We understand that. And our kids, they are getting vaccinated.”

In fact, several HBCU programs have reported 100 percent vaccination rates. Southern University of the SWAC says its team has been fully vaccinated. 

“Going into media day we were already 100% vaccinated,” Rollins told The Baton Rouge Advocate. “We had an opportunity to meet with the (players’) parents via Zoom and all of the players. It worked out well for us.”

HBCU leagues in hotspots pushing vax as COVID surges
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