Sam Sinicropi faced a tough choice.
When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted restrictions on high school football this month, Sinicropi, the superintendent of the Lansing, Mich., schools, had to decide: Should he stick with his stance to cancel all fall sports or join more than 550 other school districts across the state in celebrating its return?
In his welcome-back-to-school letter, Sinicropi wrote that his initial decision “emphasizes the health and safety of students, families, and staff as our first priority.” Despite pushback from players and parents, he stood his ground. But he is among the few.
Under pressure from local communities, high school football is roaring back amid the pandemic, with several states, including Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, and Vermont, reversing course in just the past two weeks on decisions to postpone the sport until spring. Across the nation, 35 states have already resumed play or made plans to forge ahead with high school football, the sport that health experts say carries the highest risk for coronavirus infection because of the close, sustained contact the game requires and the number of players, 22, on the field at the same time.
The return of high school mirrors the reversals in college football, where two of the largest athletic conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have recently announced plans to play football this fall after originally postponing sports until the spring.
For high schools, statewide health metrics and guidance from state agencies have factored into decisions, but the pivot to play football this fall was in question just a few months ago. In June and July, school districts in dozens of states shut down athletic training, mostly for football, after students and coaches tested positive for COVID-19.
States that began football in August have restricted attendance at games, required fans to wear masks in the stands, and instituted strict screening protocols in efforts designed to prevent coronavirus from spreading.
Some states, such as Vermont, are taking unconventional steps to keep the game going. The state abandoned tackle football for the fall, opting to offer 7-on-7 touch football, a modified version of the game with no blocking or tackling.
“Are people satisfied? No,” said Bob Johnson, associate executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, the organization that governs decisions about state high school sports. “But we had to work under the guidelines [the state] set for us. If we didn’t do 7-on-7, we would have done nothing.”
Fifteen states, mostly concentrated on the East and West coasts, and the District of Columbia, have pushed football season until spring 2021.
That number has dwindled as players, parents, and coaches stage rallies at state capitols and governors and state athletic associations face questions about why students in bordering states are cleared to play and they are not. With the coronavirus death toll topping 200,000 people, schools and parents have been forced to weigh the value of sports for children and themselves against the potential health risks.
Of the more than 600 public, private, and charter high schools in Michigan with football teams, Lansing’s high schools account for three of the 17 not playing this year. Lansing, Flint, and Muskegon Heights are the only school districts in the state to cancel all fall sports.
“Unfortunately, there is going to be some virus spread even if everybody is doing their best to do the right thing,” said Dr. Edwin Kernoelje, a sports medicine physician and member of the Michigan High School Athletic Association sports medicine advisory committee. “How do we do the best we can, acknowledging that there’s risk involved with everything we do right now?”
Like Michigan, the Minnesota State High School League voted to resume high school football this fall, with games beginning in October. “We have many schools right now that are in distance learning. We have many schools that have not even had a COVID-19 case yet in their district,” said Blaine Novak, the superintendent of the New York Mills, Minn., schools and the chairman of the Minnesota State High School League board of directors. “So, you’re weighing the fact that some schools are in a much different position to be able to play.”
But state leaders, including Gov. Tim Walz, a state championship-winning football coach during his time as a high school social studies teacher, also faced increasing pressure to reinstate the sport. Practices and contests for sports that are considered lower risk for coronavirus transmission, such as tennis, cross country, and soccer, began more than a month ago.
In the weeks preceding the return of fall football in the state, parents, players, and coaches marched on the state capitol and protested outside the governor’s residence, chanting “Let them play,” which has become a common rallying cry across the nation.
“This is where I would put my plug: If you want to see your kids play football and go back to school … wear the mask and social distance,” Walz told Minnesota’s St. Cloud Times during a visit to the city. “It is not a political statement. It is simply science.”
But high school football has become a political football—and in some cities and states, the debate is not just about the game. Debates have raged over requests to maintain six feet of social distancing in the stands and the need to wear masks on and off the field.
In Michigan, an online petition that asks for a change to Gov. Whitmer’s order that school athletes wear masks while competing has collected more than 70,000 signatures. Several dozen families gathered at the state capitol earlier this month for an “Unmask Our Athletes” rally.
Parents in Missouri and Tennessee have protested restrictions on the numbers of spectators and other safety protocols.
In mid-September, police officers tased and arrested a Marietta, Ohio, school district parent after she refused to wear a mask in the stands at an 8th grade football game hosted in the nearby Logan-Hocking school district.
Footage of the incident showed that the woman, the mother of a player, had a mask in her back pocket. Under an order from the Ohio Health Department, only parents and other close relatives are permitted at fall sporting events.
In August, the athletic director at Utah’s American Fork High School stopped a game to announce that play would not resume until everyone was wearing a mask and social distancing. The fans complied.
“It’s really being able to see where your risk tolerance is,” said Novak, the superintendent in rural New York Mills, Minn. “Our parents in our areas here want our kids to participate. They’re willing to do what they have to so that their kids can have a season.”
Nationally representative surveys led by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play and Utah State University found that, in May, nearly 68 percent of parents were extremely comfortable or slightly comfortable with their children participating in interscholastic school sports.
By July, the share of parents that felt comfortable had dropped to about 50 percent. During that time, researchers learned more about COVID-19 and the risks associated with the disease. But even with that knowledge, scientists still know very little about the potential long-term effects of the virus.
Yet, just a few months later, 70 percent of states have approved plans to resume one of the riskiest sports.
Offering football this fall has forced the “quiet parents who were happy with the decision to not play” to make tough calls of their own about whether playing the sport during a pandemic is safe, said Dr. William Roberts, a professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s department of family medicine and community health.
“I’m glad I don’t have to make a decision to send a child back in to play football,” said Roberts, a physician and the chairman of the Minnesota State High School League sports medicine advisory committee.
In the Lansing, Mich., schools, the superintendent’s decision rested on one principle: Just because students can play does not mean they should.
“There’s no playbook for this,” Sinicropi said. “There’s nothing that says this is how you’re supposed to work through a pandemic. We make the best decisions we can.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2020 edition of Education Week as Friday Night Football Is Back On, Despite COVID-19 Concerns