POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A wrestling tournament in early December spread coronavirus to more than 50 student athletes, leading Polk County Public Schools to suspend all athletics programs until January, school officials say.

More than 1,660 students participate in winter sports, including basketball, soccer, track, cheerleading and wrestling.

Nine teams participated in a two-day wrestling tournament Dec. 4 and Dec. 5 in Lakeland.

“Every school but one ended up with a positive case. We had 24 positive cases from one event, which was significantly higher than anything we’ve seen during fall sports,” said Polk County Public Schools senior athletics coordinator Dan Talbot.

Athletic directors from two other counties that participated in the tournament were notified.

In the ten days following the tournament, coronavirus has spread to dozens of students who play other sports on other teams in the county.

“Just from Sunday night to Monday morning in about a 12 hour period, we’ve quarantined seven teams,” said Talbot.

On Tuesday morning, Polk County Public Schools announced it was suspending all school sports until Jan. 4 at the recommendation of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County.

“The Florida Department of Health in Polk County is supportive of this decision and will continue to work collaboratively with the school system to help determine a safe time to resume play,” wrote Polk County DOH spokesperson Nicole Riley in a statement.

Talbot called it a difficult decision, but a necessary one.

“As educators in educationally-based athletics, we have a duty and responsibility to provide a safe environment,” he said.

“I think there’s concern obviously about keeping people safe,” said Terry Smith, a track coach at McKeel Information of Technology.

Charter schools in Polk County are also following recommendations from the health department.

Smith acknowledges this comes at a crucial part of the season.

“If you’re not getting in shape in December, you’re not going to be ready to run in January or February, so I’m disappointed, but at the same time, hopefully the kids that are motivated will keep running and doing what they need to do,” said Smith.

Talbot is adamant that practices and games will return Jan. 4. He says this is a “pause” with an end in sight.

“With the spring sport athletes not getting their season last year, we want to make sure we’re in good shape to provide spring student athletes the opportunity to participate and start their season as well,” he said.

This episode will serve as a learning lesson for the school district.

“I just think we’re gonna be more coherent to when we see smaller things that maybe we let slide before, we’re not gonna let them slide so easily,” said Talbot.

That could include stricter mask compliance enforcement, lowering capacity at sporting events and banning food and drink consumption.

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