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Woodlawn's Tim Bennett, left, and Ellis McNeely run through the 'Big Cat' drill as head coach Marcus Randall looks on during football practice, Wednesday, September 16, 2020, at Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge, La.

The decision to send Woodlawn High School’s entire football team and coaching staff home to spend two weeks in quarantine — on the eve of the first first game of the season — was made around dinner time Thursday, but it was a decision that was building all week.

Late Monday, the first Panther player reported testing positive for the novel coronavirus. But it wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that a third positive case emerged and led to the decision to quarantine, said Taylor Gast, a spokeswoman for the school system.

By Friday morning, a fourth positive case was reported, she said.

“Obviously, if we had known Monday what we knew later, we would have done things differently,” Gast said.

During that journey from an isolated case to an apparent outbreak, the Panther team continued to practice for its home opener Friday night against Riverside Academy, which was ultimately canceled.

That third positive and decisive case came hours after football players showed up at school that Thursday for their first in-person classes since March 13. Like other Baton Rouge public high schools, Woodlawn High started a hybrid schedule this week, and the Panther players were part of the Thursday-Friday group.

Now those players are back home receiving virtual-only instruction for two weeks.

The day began with football fever in the air. The school urged students to buy $10 tickets at the main office while they lasted: “Come out and support the Panthers as they kick off the 2020 school year!”

Principal Scott Stevens has offered assurance to faculty that everyone was safe.

In an email sent out late Thursday, hours after the official announcement of the quarantine, Stevens said neither the students who tested positive nor their close contacts were at school that day.

“Any symptoms of positive tested players occurred away from campus and at no point were any of these individuals on campus exhibiting symptoms,” Stevens said.

Stevens went on to say that the three cases identified up to that point were unrelated.

“None of the three positive cases were in contact with one another, based on investigations and interviews done by medical personnel,” Stevens wrote. He  added that none of their close contacts who have already gone into quarantine have “shown any symptoms or tested positive.”

The final decision to quarantine players and coaches was based on “guidance and protocols set by the Louisiana Department of Health,” the principal said.

Gast said LDH weighed in directly Thursday afternoon, recommending the quarantine.

Kevin Litten, a spokesman for LDH, said he can’t say more about his agency’s role in that decision: “We just can’t say more about confidential epidemiological investigations.”

Agency guidance issued in late July differentiates between isolated cases, where only those who test positive and their close contacts need to remove themselves from school, and situations where two or more individuals test positive, as in the case with Woodlawn High.

In an interview with The Advocate in August, Assistant State Health Officer Joseph Kanter said schools make the decision about what action to take, but he and other health officers insist on being part of that decision-making process. 

“The less confident we are, the more likely we are to recommend quarantines,” Kanter said.

Stevens assured faculty in his email that football coaches have been “over-cautious” and have maintained a “more restrictive environment than what is required.” But, ultimately, it wasn’t enough.

“Even through screeners and temperature checks, it is obvious this virus can/has made its way to a few of our players,” Stevens said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.