When in-person classes around the country began to close in March to curb the spread of coronavirus, high school sports also came to an abrupt halt, delivering a crushing defeat to millions of student-athletes.
As the virus raged on, educators across the country cautioned that it would be difficult to justify playing sports if in-person classes do not resume in the fall. But as summer approaches and COVID-19 cases in some states begin to wane, there is increasing pressure to find ways to play.
In many schools, it may be too risky to have students in buildings this fall. But schools in some states are beginning outdoor practices and workouts, preparing as if sports will resume in the fall.
State athletic associations and school athletic directors must weigh the risks of resuming sports during a global pandemic against the potential fallout of keeping an estimated 8 million students on the sidelines, detached from the sports that, in many cases, keep them connected to school and pave a path to college.
“We’re all struggling right now to come up with the practices and approaches for returning to activity,” said Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body that writes the rules of competition for most high school sports in the United States.
“A lot of the factors that will really need to be guiding us through these phases, will be knowing who has the virus, who had the virus, onsite testing at all school sites, regular monitoring of all of our participants and communication with opposing schools about what to do, the availability of tests, the availability of information,” she said.
In late May, the national federation’s sports medicine advisory committee, a 15-member panel of medical doctors, certified athletic trainers, high school coaches and officials, research specialists and state high school association leaders, published guidance intended to help schools safely resume activity. The guidelines recommended a measured approach to restarting sports and other activities with social distancing in the initial phase.
But less than a week after issuing the playbook, the federation is facing pushback from some members who contend the ground rules are much too cautious, especially when compared with the nonschool youth programs that have already restarted in some parts of the country as stay-at-home orders lift.
Sports Training Workouts Begin Soon
To many students and parents, the prospect of another season lost to the coronavirus pandemic would be unacceptable. That is particularly the case for rising juniors and seniors whose dreams of playing sports in college could be derailed and for many others who know that high school sports will be their last opportunity to play competitive sports.
The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association rejected a three-phase plan from staff that would have eased students back into sports with social distancing guidelines in place. All high school sports activities resumed last week in that state with no restrictions.
While most Californians remain under stay-at-home orders, students at Wheatland Union High School in northern California began conditioning workouts for football players and fitness drills for cheerleaders this week with approval from school district administrators and the Yuba County health department. The small-group sessions will be limited to no more than 10 people and students will not used shared equipment, district Superintendent Nicole Newman said.
Alabama is among the states that gave schools the go-ahead to host on-campus workouts beginning Monday, June 1. Individual schools determine workout guidelines, including whether students can participate in weightlifting and other indoor activities. But the Alabama High School Athletics Association is prohibiting mandatory summer practices along with team camps and summer competition until further notice.
“High school sports and communities are like apple pie and ice cream,” said Steve Savarese, the executive director of the state athletic association. “They just go together so well. It’s an opportunity for communities to come together to have a common goal to pull for their local teams and return to a sense of normalcy.”
While schools in coronavirus hot spots are proceeding cautiously, planning is still underway.
“I’m making sure that we are prepared as if we could come back to a completely normal fall season,” said Samantha Miyahara, the athletic director at Warren High School in Downey, Calif., in southeast Los Angeles County. “But I’m very aware that we could have some changes. The health of our athletes and our coaches and potential spectators is first and foremost.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations’ guidelines recommend that students wear masks while competing, if possible; avoid sharing water bottles and using shared hydration stations, such as water fountains and water troughs; and curtail travel if possible to limit the amount of time students spend on buses.
Guidance on reopening schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend sitting one student per bus seat and skipping rows—which would make it near-impossible to pack teams on buses.
Medical professionals say that reducing risk almost certainly means ramping up testing capabilities that K-12 schools do not currently have. The national federation’s return-to-sports protocol also suggests that schools record and store responses to coronavirus screening questions to aid with contact tracing if a student develops COVID-19.
“There’s going to be that question amongst participants and their parents and school officials and coaches of ‘Just how safe is it really going to be?’” said Bobby Cox, the commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. “Parents and students have a choice if they don’t feel like they can safely participate. There will be some kids and there’ll be some families that won’t do it.”
Those requests are just the beginning of the challenges that schools will face in ensuring student safety, said Dr. Geoffrey Dreher, an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University and associate team physician for the school’s athletic department.
“There’s going to be elevated risk with everything you’re doing,” Dreher said. “What’s your protocol going to be if an athlete or coach gets sick or tests positive? You’re talking about a high school, you’re mixing students with student-athletes, teachers. That adds extra layers onto the consideration.”
The federation guidance separate sports into higher-, intermediate-, and lower-risk categories. In the lower-risk category are golf, swimming, and individual track and field events that allow for social distancing and that let students compete without sharing equipment. Baseball, basketball, ice hockey, softball, and tennis are among the sports in the intermediate risk category. In the higher-risk category are full contact sports such as football, wrestling, and competitive cheer.
Sanitizing Facilities, Maintaining Social Distancing
Schools must also wrestle with how to meet stepped-up demands for sanitizing facilities, ensuring that students have access to physicals, and maintaining social distancing if schools allow parents, students, and residents to attend games and matches. These considerations for athletics come as K-12 schools are staring down budget cuts that could affect their ability to re-open schools.
“I never thought I would say this in my life, but this is probably one time that I’m thankful that athletics and that co-curricular activities make up such a small portion of a school budget,” said Niehoff of the National Federation of High School Associations. “They will find ways to get those kids to play.”
But the sport that poses one of the highest risks for student-athletes—football—is also the most popular. And high school football seasons without fans in the stands could be disastrous for athletic department budgets. The revenue that football generates from ticket sales helps fund other sports. Without football, schools could be forced to cut activities. That is why some states are considering re-aligning the traditional sports calendar by shifting football from fall to spring.
“It’s unlikely at this time that football is going to start back at the same time in communities that have been devastated by the coronavirus,” Dreher said. “It might be delayed where people are even considering can we push it back to the spring and have kind of an abbreviated season then or asking ‘Are we skipping this year until things are more clear and more safe?’”
There are also questions about how schools will monitor and enforce practice and participation guidelines. The Miami-Dade schools suspended a state championship-winning football coach this month after an investigation revealed he hosted practices in violation of the state’s stay-at-home order.
In Louisiana, the state high school athletic association has launched an investigation after 10 schools began training before the summer start date, which was pushed back to align with the state’s coronavirus restrictions, according to the Associated Press.
“Our job is to follow the guidance of our leadership in our state and create an environment that is as safe as possible,” said Cox, the commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. “If we do it right, this is the kind of thing that can really reunite our communities and create some positive social energy.”
Keeping Students Connected
Sarah Whaley, the athletic director at Marana High School in Tucson, Ariz., understands the struggles that her students are facing, in being physically separated from teammates, coaches, and sports. Whaley, a former high school basketball, softball, and volleyball coach, wonders how schools will keep some student-athletes engaged if sports and other extracurricular activities are not happening.
“A lot of kids do come to school for athletics and that’s where they derive a lot of their purpose and motivation,” Whaley said. “It becomes hard to keep kids engaged in an online environment when they don’t have some of those extracurriculars, whether it’s sports or drama or music performance.”
Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of High School Associations, does not envy the state athletic association executives and local athletic directors who will have to make difficult decisions about football and other sports come this fall.
“What we see in a school environment, without activities, we have lost potentially the engagement of a huge population of kids who find their niche,” said Niehoff, a former high school principal in Burlington, Conn.
While students await the go-ahead to resume training and practices in some states, athletic directors are encouraging coaches to maintain contact with students to monitor their mental and physical health.
“One thing that we really tried to convey was it’s OK to be upset,” said Miyahara, the athletic director at Warren High in Southern California. “Let them mourn the loss of the season. While we appreciate the measures that we’re taking to keep everybody safe—and we’re going to adhere to those measures—it still sucks.”
Ultimately, states will make their own decisions on the return of sports. For now, many schools are proceeding with extreme caution, with the understanding that, as recent history has taught them, just because sports seasons begin does not ensure they will end.
“I wish we all had a crystal ball and we knew what was going to happen next year,” said Savarese, the Alabama High School Athletic Association executive director. “We’re all going to have to cope and deal with these things until we return to some sense of normalcy and whatever that new normal becomes.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2020 edition of Education Week as How Can School Sports Get Back on the Playing Field?