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This story was reported on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 23. Ranney has since canceled its game at Red Bank Catholic on Friday. Read the latest here.

Throughout the 2021 season, Ranney boys basketball coach Tahj Holden and his team have been clear about what their primary goal is during this unusual high-school basketball season: Stay COVID-free, stay safe and keep playing games.

Monday, those interconnected goals were put to the test when Ranney was compelled to cancel its high-profile scheduled home game against Trenton Catholic Academy. According to multiple sources who wished to remain anonymous, a player in the program tested positive for COVID-19 and the game was cancelled while the school - in conjunction with the department of health - conducted contact tracing.

Athletic director Natalie Gorman and Holden did not comment on Monday but the athletic department released a statement Tuesday confirming the contact tracing and also announcing the team would resume basketball activities later in the day on Tuesday.

"Out of an abundance of caution, yesterday’s game was cancelled as we completed all necessary internal protocols and contact tracing," the Ranney Athletic Department said in a statement. "Our top priority is to keep our community members safe. With all procedures completed, and in consultation with the Department of Health, the team is able to resume today."

Head coach Tahj Holden has guided Ranney to a banner season during a trying time for his family. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Ranney coach Tahj Holden. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ranney's next scheduled game is currently set for Friday at Red Bank Catholic, which is to be followed by a home game Saturday against Colonia to conclude the regular season. Currently ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and No. 10 in the state by NJ Advance Media, the Panthers also figure to be one of the top two seeds in next week's Shore Conference postseason.

Holden said before the season he is especially sensitive to the risks his players, coaches and himself are incurring by playing this season, particularly returning the the gym after a situation like the one that arose Monday.

Holden and his family went through a rather public health struggle that ended last March when Holden's youngest of two sons, Max, died of a rare form of pediatric cancer after a two-year battle. The tragic ordeal has informed Holden's caution with regard to the coronavirus.

"I'm extremely sensitive to the risks that we're all taking," Holden said prior to the season. "I lost my son a year ago so I have no interest in putting anybody's family members at risk. There are going to be protocols in place and we're going to exercise extra caution with everything we do because the last thing we want to do is to send a kid back to his house with his family with a virus that he got from coming to practice."

Back in the fall, Ranney shut down its entire athletic program for two weeks due to an encounter with the virus within the school, which prompted the school to go to all-remote learning for that two-week period.

Ranney's one-day stoppage makes it the 27th boys varsity program to undergo a shutdown of any kind during the 2021 season. This week, the Panthers were supposed to play Mater Dei Prep on Monday and Wednesday but Mater Dei's varsity team shut down for the week due to a positive case on its team.

Currently, it is up to the discretion of schools and school districts, in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Health, to determine the best course of action when learning of a positive COVID-19 test among its student-athletes. The commonly-employed protocol involves a 14-day quarantine by the affected team during which no in-person meeting between the players and coaches of any kind is permitted.

Private institutions like Ranney and Mater Dei can be more adaptable to changes within the national standards set forth by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the state Department of Health while public-school districts generally rely on more codified policy established at the beginning of the school year. Back in December, the CDC reduced the recommended quarantine period for someone who comes in contact with the virus from 14 days to 10 days, as long as symptoms are closely monitored and none develope during that period.

That particular CDC update also states that an isolation can safely end after seven days if accompanied by a negative "diagnostic specimen test."

Public school districts, meanwhile, implemented their protocols based on the 14-day recommendation that existed at the beginning of the school year and is still an overarching recommendation by the CDC, the December update notwithstanding.

A number of districts adhere to the COVID-19 Regional Mask Matrix, with the risk level updated once per week by the New Jersey Department of Health.

The reluctance to change likely stems from the fact that doing so would be incurring more risk of infection rather than less - especially considering the prominent role of teachers unions and local governments within the public school ecosystem. It also underscores the uncertainty and confusion that arises when trying to navigate the proper steps to take when a positive case arises and the information is used to inform protocol.

There are currently two boys basketball teams that will be unable to participate in the Shore Conference playoffs because of a COVID-related shutdown and both are on their second shutdown of the season. Freehold Township and Point Pleasant Beach are both eligible to return during the final week of the season but will not play until March 4, when they face one another.

Freehold Township will then close its season with a rivalry game at Freehold Boro on March 6.

Edit: This post was updated to clarify that many public school districts use the COVID-19 Mask Matrix as a guide in assessing risk and crafting COVID-19 protocol.

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