Herriman players take the field against Davis during a high school football game on Aug. 13 in Herriman, Utah. Utah is among the states going forward with high school football this fall despite concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. AP photo

It was late May, and the coronavirus pandemic had been ramping up for two months. But in Utah, school administrators got together and started talking about football.

They talked about guidelines, protocols and safety measures. They shared research they had done. And then they talked not about a sport they were considering shutting down, but one they were determined to save.

“Our state is pretty innovative, and kind of has the mentality of finding ways to make it work, instead of finding ways to not make it work,” said Brenan Jackson, the director of football at the Utah High School Activities Association. “We just moved forward in finding ways to make it happen, instead of finding excuses not to.”

The decision to play, suspend or cancel high school sports this fall — particularly high-contact ones like football — is fiercely debated across America. The national COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 185,000, according to the New York Times. and more than 6 million people in the United States have contracted the coronavirus.

More than a dozen states suspended football this fall, including California, Colorado, Maryland and Illinois because of safety risks. But others, like Utah, Alabama and Texas, pushed ahead to play during the global pandemic. At least 20 states will see high school football games played this season. Some of them have seen schools cancel games because of the coronavirus, including in West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Utah and Texas, among others.

Utah became the first in the country to play high school this season, when games kicked off three weeks ago.

On Tuesday the state of Maine revised its community sports guidelines, which could make the sport hard to be played here this fall, save for intra-squad scrimmages. The state also countered the Maine Principals’ Association’s plan for fall sports in a stern letter — signed by Commissioner of Education Pender Makin and Commissioner of Department of Health and Human Services Jeanne Lambrew  — that cited several instances in which the MPA failed to follow COVID-19 safety measures.

 

Herriman players celebrate as they take the field for a high school football game against Davis on Aug. 13 in Herriman, Utah. Utah is among the states going forward with high school football this fall despite concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. AP photo

 

It remains to be seen if or when high school football can be played in Maine.

The MPA, in a joint statement with state officials Wednesday, announced it was further delaying the fall sports season by a week. Sports-specific practices were originally set to begin Sept. 8.

In Utah, 106 schools have played football games this season, but there have been cancelations because of positive COVID-19 tests. A few teams cancelled games at the start of the season before Provo High School — after positive tests — cancelled a game with Timpview last Friday.

Jackson, the head of the Utah high school sports governing board, said he knew going in that positive tests were inevitable. The focus was on preventing spread.

“There’s a difference between having four or five positive cases, versus an outbreak,” he said.

Some high school football coaches in Utah say safety protocols in place — including contact tracing and the quarantining of COVID 19-positive players for a week — have helped. So, too, have other safety measures, including face coverings for the limited number of fans in attendance and daily temperature checks for players and coaches.

“It’s week by week. I can tell you I’ve lost a lot of sleep,” said Matt Rickards, who coaches Kearns High School in Salt Lake City  “I’ll get phone calls where it’ll be like ‘Hey coach, my brother and sister are sick, they’re going to get tested.’ … Every weekend and every Monday, I’m just dreading it because I don’t want to get that text message. … We’ve got to be extra careful. We were already, but now it seems like the stakes are a little bit higher. We were telling our kids, stay away from crowded areas as much as you possibly can. Our season’s on the line.”

Added Mitch Arquette, the head coach at Davis High School in Kaysville: “I would venture to say it’s gone smoother than expected. We’ve had very few teams in the state shut down, very few games cancelled. It seems like the procedures that the state association had put in play have worked. I think there is an optimism that the season will finish … but it’s always in the back of your mind. Every time someone coughs or sneezes, you’re afraid that they’re sick, they’re going to get others sick and it’s going to stop the year.”

Around Memorial Day, soon after spring sports in Utah were cancelled, groups comprised of principals and school superintendents began consulting sports medicine experts about a fall sports plan. The summer was spent figuring out what needed to happen for fall sports, including football, to proceed. Eventually, the UHSAA — after seeing summer competitions and practices held without any case spikes — decided to go ahead with the season.

“(People against playing) were fewer and farther between than the proponents to move forward,” Jackson said. “I think you would do yourself, your community, your kids, your state a disservice to think that we can’t do it until we’re guaranteed not to have positive cases. You can’t control that, but what you can control is your best practices.”

In Alabama, the decision to play all fall sports — football, volleyball, cross country, and swimming and diving — was made in conjunction with the state Department of Education, Department of Health, Governor’s office, and the Alabama High School Athletic Association medical advisors

“We had a task force that worked on it all summer,” said Ron Ingram, the director of communications for the AHSAA. “They just wanted these kids to have a chance because (student-athletes) worked so hard. Not being involved with athletics and academics has risks, too,” Ingram said.

Davis players cheer their team on during a high school football against Herriman on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. Utah is among the states going forward with high school football this fall despite concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that led other states and many college football conferences to postpone games in hopes of instead playing in the spring. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) AP

Ingram added that many students use athletics as an escape from a tough family life or as a mental health release.

“There’s something new we learn every day that helps improve things,” he said.

Alabama has close to 400 high schools playing football, Ingram said. There are 199 games scheduled for this week. However, 11 games will not be played, either because a school opted out of the season or couldn’t play because of a positive COVID-19 test, Ingram said.

The season began with a slate of 22 games on Aug. 20. Ingram said three schools failed to adequately ensure fans adhered to social distancing guidelines, prompting the AHSAA to send strong directives to schools in the days that followed.  Since then, a vast majority of schools have followed the guidelines, which included limits on crowd size. For stadiums which larger capacity (8,000-10,000 fans), a 50-percent cap on attendance is working, Ingram said. At smaller stadiums, which account for most of Alabama’s high school, that cap is around 30 percent capacity.

Last Friday, Alabama high school football was in the national spotlight when St. Paul’s Episcopal of Mobile played at Spanish Fort live on ESPN. The week before, Spanish Fort was criticized when a photo of fans who weren’t social distancing or wearing masks went viral, Ingram said. With the superintendent and principal closely monitoring the crowd, the AHSAA noticed marked improvement in Friday’s game.

“We’re not completely satisfied, but we know it’s getting better every single day,” Ingram said.

St. Paul’s head coach Steve Mask said he used the added pressure of playing on national television to ensure his team focused on following safety guidelines closely.

“We were very cognizant of the fact that we wanted to show the country we can do this. I think we passed the eye test,” Mask said.

Mask said he stays on his team about following the guidelines.

“They’re still 15, 16 years old and have mental lapses. I think our kids are grateful to be playing,” Mask said.

To make the short 15-mile trip from across the top of Mobile Bay to Spanish Fort, St. Paul’s took three buses instead of the two it normally would need. It can be a challenge at some smaller stadiums to meet social distance guidelines when there’s not much room between the sidelines and bleachers, Mask said, but this season teams are allowed to spread out between the 10 yard lines.

“We do the best we can,” Mask said. “It’s very doable. In Alabama, there have been schools quarantined week to week, but it’s going well. I hope we can make it through December.”

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