High school sports face many obstacles as the school year nears

Published 1:57 pm Monday, July 20, 2020

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The same pandemic-related questions that have bedeviled professional and college sports are front and center for high school administrators across the country — and they are far more complicated.

Setting up expensive, tightly regimented bubbles for professional athletes or setting protocols for thousands of college athletes who answer to a handful of coaches is not happening at the high school level.

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Instead, more than 13,000 districts, some of them resource-rich, many of them not, are trying to figure how to safely stage sports for some 8 million participants, nearly all of them minors.

Already some states, including Tennessee, Arizona, West Virginia, New Jersey, and Washington, have announced fall sports will have at least a delayed start. Prep sports heavyweights like Texas, Florida, and California all have big decisions coming up fast.

Mark Uyl goes through all the different scenarios, contingencies, and endless concerns daily as the head of the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

“It’s been like walking in quicksand,” Uhl said. “You’ll go a week or two and it feels like you’re taking a step or two on solid ground where the number of cases is trending in a certain direction or some of the metrics that government leaders are looking at.

Then you go to take that third step and it feels like you’re almost deeper than what you were.”

He and other high school officials insist on the importance of education-based athletics makes it a puzzle worth solving. But it’s a puzzle unlike any of them have ever faced.

Safety in the year of the coronavirus is the overriding priority. But what does that look like? Empty stadiums and gyms? What about testing? Masks?

Can high school-aged athletes manage social distancing? What about liability? Are extracurricular activities even worth the risk as school districts around the country face mounting financial concerns with increased costs for personal protective equipment and expected revenue shortfalls?

As the clock ticks closer to the start of the new school year, the uncertainty is compounded by the complexity. The fifty states plus the District of Columbia all have different governing bodies for prep sports, different priorities, and different pressures.

“I think people realize how valuable the experience of participation is, and they want to give kids anywhere that can a chance,” said Mick Hoffman, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.

While there was optimism in June that competition might go on as scheduled in the fall, it has been replaced by pessimism in July as the number of positive cases has risen across the country.

Even in Texas, where high school football is religion, there is growing worry.

Earlier this month, Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said in an interview with MSNBC that in his opinion it was doubtful high school football would be played in 2020.

The decision ultimately rests with the University Interscholastic League that oversees high school sports in Texas, but the headline amplified the growing concern.

“We’ve got a lot of decisions to make. I wish we had answers. I wish there was a silver bullet. There’s not,” said Tim Teykl, head football coach at Alvin High School outside of Houston.

“I don’t know if we’re going to have a football season. I don’t know if we’re going to have school. I’m going to continue to fight and claw as if we are. And then if not, we’ll do what we’re told to do.”

As deadlines loom in different areas, school decision-makers are doing jobs they never anticipated before.

Administrators check in with public health officials as often as they communicate with coaches.

Coaches serve as a front-line of defense, doing temperature checks and sanitizing equipment as they put players through summer drills.

Then there are the athletes, some of whom already had spring seasons wiped out.

“It’s a very emotional area for young people and their parents because the extracurriculars are at the heart of the school in many ways,” said Dave Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education.

“They’re the spirit of the school and frankly a lot of the reason kids stay in school.”

Aside from concerns about the virus itself, there is another fallout. Some schools were already facing budget struggles due to a lack of state or local funding.

Now they face the potential of returning to the classroom with significant increases in costs, whether it be for protective equipment, sanitation or maybe just running more buses because of restrictions on how many students are on each one.

Extracurricular activities become easy targets for cuts when there are budget shortfalls.

“We are hearing across the country that schools are facing anywhere from 20 to 50% budget cuts, very dire straits,” Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation for State High School Associations, said during a webinar with the Aspen Institute.

“State associations looking at anywhere from $150,000 to over $2 million in losses to support programming and tournaments and such. So we’re very worried.”

Important dates and decisions are coming up, especially in states with school starting in mid-August.

One of the biggest dominoes is likely to fall this week when the California Interscholastic Federation is expected to announce its sports calendar. The federation could proceed with the current schedule but it could also delay the start of fall sports.

Virginia said recently that none of its potential plans include football being allowed in the fall with a final decision coming later in the month.

But even reaching a final decision doesn’t mean there won’t be setbacks. Some states that permitted summer workouts have later had to shut down.

Among the most drastic options being weighed in some places is a sports calendar that doesn’t begin until January.

“Obviously that’s not the direction I want to go. It would create a lot of overlap, forced choices. It would make it very difficult obviously to play multiple sports,” said California federation executive director Ron Nocetti.

“But the goal is to offer a season, if at all possible, for all of our student-athletes.”