The Executive Board of the Arizona Interscholastic Association voted last Wednesday to endorse guidelines proposed by its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) for a safe return to sport and activity. As a result, the AIA fall sports season will continue as scheduled.
However, the question remains: Will it finish?
Football, the last fall sport to begin, started practice on Monday, with games scheduled to commence Sept. 30 – Oct. 2. The sport of golf has begun competition. Cross country, swimming & diving, badminton, fall soccer and volleyball have started practice and tryouts.
“I would like to say on behalf of the staff and the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, especially for the sport of football, we would not have been able to make this decision until this time right now based on the metrics,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said in a statement. “So, the metrics have gotten to a place that we can start football practice. That we can start the heat acclimatization (guidelines). That we can get kids in a helmet and shoulder pads and begin doing work.”
Some teams across the state have already decided not to conduct a fall sports season, including Ray High School in Kearny, while others are still unsure if or when they will proceed. The AIA has stated “schools playing football will have the option of beginning practice on Labor Day, which is Sept. 7 with any date after that permissible.”
“Per our athletic director and superintendent, we’re going to push back the start of practice for two weeks,” Hayden football head coach John Estrada told Copper Area News. “The reason for pushing that back is because our area is still in the red per the health department. If things change in two weeks and we get put in the green, then I believe they’ll give us the ok to start practice. If things don’t change, I’m afraid our season may be cancelled.”
Superior High School returned to the practice field after suspending activities a few weeks ago.
“The SUSD school board voted last Wednesday, 5-0, for the return of high school fall sports,” Panthers football head coach Ryan Palmer said in an email to Copper Area News. “Programs will be following the AIA guidelines and health metrics for a phased return to practice, and hopefully competition.
“I think that the guidelines, established by doctors and health officials, promote the safety of students, staff, and their families. Although nothing is ever guaranteed, I believe that by following the guidelines, we can return to sports safely. It will take a diligent effort from all involved, to make smart, safe choices, to successfully execute the season.”
Starting practice, especially in team sports where socially distancing is nearly impossible, including football, volleyball, and soccer, is a positive step. The proposed guidelines to continue toward game competition between teams remain a challenge.
The following county-specific benchmarks, as published on the Arizona Department of Health services (ADHS) website, allow for the start of practice:
1. Two weeks below 100 cases per 100,000 OR two-week decline in the number of new cases (not including current week).
2. Two weeks with percent positivity below 7% (not including current week).
3. Two weeks with hospital visits due to COVID-like illness below 10%.
The benchmarks to begin game competition must reach another phase, considering the SMAC guidelines assess the risk of COVID-19 spread in athletic sports settings. According to the 19-page document, the risk is expected to be increased during team-based practice, more risk within-team competition, even more risk when full competition between teams from the same local geographic area, and the highest risk during full competition between teams from different geographic areas.
Modifications previously released by the AIA that address such game logistics of eliminating postgame handshakes, equipment sanitizing, and more aim to reduce risks, however, they don’t affect the benchmarks defined by the ADHS nor the SMAC guidelines to begin game competition.
Currently, most communities are considered in the “Moderate Community Spread” category of the SMAC guidelines, which allows larger team sports and contact sports to consider non-contact team practice with cohorts at least six feet from other cohorts at practice and the following:
• Outside practice encouraged when possible
• Maintain healthy operations and healthy environment guidelines shall be followed at all times
• Athletes shall be kept in the same training group (cohorting)
• Athletes should have their own equipment (i.e. helmets)
• Training drills with shared equipment may occur (i.e. sleds)
• Cleaning and disinfecting schedule in place
• Minimum cleaning before and after each cohort, but preferred before and after each athlete
• No close contact drills between players
• No competitions
• All coaches and staff should wear masks at all times
For competition to commence between teams, communities must reach a level of “minimal community spread” defined as:
1. <10 cases/100,000
2. <5% of COVID-19 PCR tests performed are positive
3. <5% of hospital visits due to COVID-like illness
If and when that level is reached, “all sports, with and without contact, may resume with usual activity,” according the SMAC guidelines.
Many throughout the state, including coaches, parents, and media wonder if that level is unattainable in the next four weeks or less. Soccer and volleyball are scheduled to begin game competition Sept. 16-21.
The AIA appears to believe that communities will reach the level required to see games under the Friday Night Lights and more.
“To say we are happy to be where we are now is an understatement,” Hines said. “The Board members really took their time to make sure that this could be done safely. We think that it definitely can. With the help of everyone at our member schools doing their part, we can absolutely make this a memorable season.”
No doubt, this fall sports season will be remembered but for what?
We are about to find out.