High school sports return to play…for nowSep 21, 2020 17h02 ● By Catherine Garrett
This season looks different than in years past as three Juan Diego Catholic High School soccer players “mask up” at a recent game. (Photo courtesy Alysia Love)
By Catherine Garrett | [email protected]
In unprecedented times with uncertainty continuing over many aspects of life due to the current pandemic, the idea of sports at all levels coming back sounds so refreshing.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fights have resumed, PGA golf tournaments are again being held, Major League baseball has begun their delayed season and the NBA created a bubble in Orlando, Florida to bring 22 teams to play out the last regular season games and playoffs—all without fans in attendance.
And yet, just as our excitement builds as we watch live sports returning, we see the number of COVID-19 cases, patterns and deaths fluctuating on a daily basis and are left to wonder—will high school fall sports really happen? The seasons have already begun for most of the state’s boys golf, girls soccer, girls tennis, volleyball, football and cross country teams, but how long will it last? As schools begin opening statewide as well, a lot of apprehension hangs in the air.
“This is literally an hour-by-hour situation as we have been continually adapting to the current pandemic, making plans to ‘return to play,’ scrapping plans and making new plans,” Utah High School Activities Association director Rob Cuff said.
The UHSAA has been working tirelessly since March when the coronavirus shut down the sports world—and the country for a time—to brainstorm scenarios that could allow Utah high school athletics to resume. Initially, the organization suspended play for two weeks and continued to delay participation until mid-April when the spring sports seasons were officially canceled.
Before the school year ended, the UHSAA lifted the typical moratorium that begins after Memorial Day to allow sports programs to hold summer trainings without date restrictions while encouraging strict adherence to local health recommendations. On July 10, the UHSAA board voted to resume the fall sports season and within two weeks had released a “Return to Play” set of guidelines to help districts and schools to outline their own protocols based on the local health procedures in their area and with specific evaluations of the use of their own facilities.
Those policies include:
1) Eliminating handshakes between opposing teams and coaches.
2) “Masking up” all players and coaches who are on the sidelines along with fans in the stands, particularly when social distancing isn’t possible.
3) Having schools and districts establish and enforce protocols and place signs at their facilities to inform participants and spectators of their own required policies, which may include mandated masks. This also includes determining seating capacity allowed.
4) Mandating that sick players, coaches or spectators not participate in practices or games.
5) Having each school fill out Utah Event Management forms and sending copies to the UHSAA.
Additionally, daily temperature screenings for athletes and coaches, constant sanitizing, using personal water bottles, having wider sidelines, longer timeouts and setting a cap on uniformed players (at 50 for football) are among other procedures being required for each school.
In an Aug. 13 memo to UHSAA schools and administrators, Cuff called for all members to “double down on efforts to ensure that safety guidelines are being universally adhered to across the association…one district, one school, one team, one coach, one student participant who chooses not to follow these guidelines has the potential to undermine participation for all.”
While many states around the country have delayed the start of high school fall sports until at least the start of the new year, Utah was one of 17 states nationwide to begin as scheduled.
“For months, we have been working closely with the state health department and the governor’s office to stay in tune to what’s happening,” Cuff said. “We are in uncharted territory, so we are carefully and constantly navigating how to move forward.”
Keeko Georgelas, Murray High’s athletic director said, “The district has worked really hard to put a model in place. A lot of work has gone into designing a model to give this thing a shot and it has a chance to work, although I’m apprehensive about the human nature of things, especially in the pre-game and post-game. I’m actually not as fearful of the games themselves.”
And despite the best efforts of the nearly 100,000 members and 155 teams state-wide, COVID-19 has again disrupted high school sports in Utah.
A positive test on the Lone Peak girls soccer team put the whole program in quarantine, missing four games over a two-week period.
Most notably, three players on Bingham’s football team tested positive which led to the cancellation of its season opener against Weber Aug. 13.
“Those kids have never showed any symptoms and are as healthy as can be,” said Bingham head coach Dave Peck, who noted that they were cleared for a return to practice Aug. 17. “The health department came in and tested the whole team—100 kids and coaches—and there were two more positive tests found. Those players have been quarantining and will for 10 days. What we’ve proven here is that we’re not spreading it through our team; it’s coming through outside sources.”
Peck said his program canceled camps and scrimmages over the summer to deal with cases and out of an abundance of caution, but losing that time along with their first game has been tough.
“We have a group that could seriously challenge for the state title, but with all that we dealt with in the summer, we’re behind,” he said. “Plus, we didn’t play this week while everyone else did.”
And yet, the grim reality of the COVID-19 situation sets in further for Peck as he has watched one player struggle with coronavirus so severely that the player’s 25-year-old sister contracted the virus and she is now on life support.
Now, for the second week in a row to begin the football season, a game will not be played as Cyprus had two players test positive which will cancel its game with Ridgeline Aug. 20.
These cancellations are considered no contests and will not be rescheduled, for most sports, and do not count against them in RPI rankings.
And those are just the more current cases that are more widely known. That doesn’t even include the various sports from Bonneville, Box Elder, Clearfield, Farmington, Fremont, Granger, Herriman, Layton, Syracuse, Weber and others that had to cancel practices, scrimmages and camps throughout the summer as they dealt with positive tests for some players and coaches.
“We’re doing all we can to play safe so we can play as long as we can,” Georgelas said.
Cuff noted the “remarkable job” schools and districts are doing.
“This is a massive effort to provide the best for our kids,” he said. “We want them safe, so we’ll start playing. We recognize that among all of the factors we are considering that mental wellness for our student-athletes are so important and we are constantly evaluating if the reward outweighs the risk so we can condense or adjust things. We’re certainly in uncharted territory, but we are working diligently to ensure that we make the safest decisions for everyone. As long as school’s in session, we’ll keep playing.”