USA TODAY Sports announces that its celebration of standout high school student-athletes will be held free of charge on June 18, replacing the previously scheduled in-person event.


Bobby Cox talked about whistles in a recent staff meeting. About officials, standing near the action, using a device that blasts airfar more than six feet. That’s a scary thought right now.

The National Federation of State High School Associations has discussed using an electronic signal. Guidance released by Indiana’s Department of Education doesn’t touch on it and Cox, Indiana High School Athletic Association’s executive director, thinks whistles will be used in the fall. At least in some sports. Others might use an air horn instead. That is, if contests are played at all.

Down to even that level of detail, every piece of every high school game is being evaluated now as state athletic associations around the country try to chart a path toward playing in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. There’s no playbook. The information at hand changes daily. So do the situations in each state. 

There’s optimism, steeped in caution and uncertainty. Nobody has changed the calendar, and nobody can commit to keeping it.

“I think the key with all of this has been that there’s really no roadmap here,” Cox said. “Everybody’s state is affected a little differently.””

As in most other states, Indiana has a date at which conditioning work can start — July 6. Kids will be in small groups, and get symptoms and temperatures checked prior to participating, along with a slew of other guidelines. By Aug. 15, the expected start date for Phase III of reopening extracurricular activities, that could build into games with fans in attendance and even concession stands operational.

But that’s all contingent on everything going well in the early stages, on getting the necessary hand sanitizer, disinfectant and personal protective equipment, on schools reopening in September, on officials who could be putting themselves at risk working games, on parents being comfortable putting their kids in close-contact situations, on everyone from school principals to Gov. Eric Holcomb signing off, and on COVID-19 not getting out of control and shutting it all down midway through reopening.

Now, repeat all of that 50 times over and you’ll have an idea of the scale of the challenge of getting high school sports started nationwide. IndyStar surveyed state directors in 30 states about the challenges of getting started, finding myriad situations with one bottom line: Nothing is for certain.

Testing for coronavirus is  unlikely

As professional and college sports have begun to work toward a restart, testing has been among the biggest issues. Professional leagues wanted to wait until testing was widely available to the public, so they weren’t jumping in line, and to get back, it seems they’ll need to test participants with some degree of regularity. At the college level, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said his conference will require student-athletes to undergo testing upon returning to campuses, though there’s variance across schools from other conferences.

At the high school level, this will rarely be the case.

“We discussed that,” David Hines, the executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, said. “I don’t think we have the capability to require that.”

The 16-page guidance document distributed by the NFHS in late May does not include recommendations for regular testing of student-athletes, despite asymptomatic spread of coronavirus accounting for up to 40 percent of transmission. That guidance recommends screening for signs and symptoms of coronavirus, including a temperature check, before  any workouts or contests, with records kept of those present in order to allow for contact tracing.

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“We will look at (testing) in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health, and look and see if that’s a possibility, if that’s not a possibility,” said Billy Haun, the Virginia High School League’s executive director. “Because when you start talking about that level of stuff, you gotta look at, are there enough tests available to do that and what’s the expense that it’s gonna be that would be incurred by the local school divisions?”

The commonly used PCR tests cost up to $200 each,, and most high schools won’t have the budget for that, especially amid the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

In some states, schools might struggle to get the necessary protective equipment in order to stage workouts, practices and games, running into issues with the supply chain. As things start to open back up, most are optimistic about getting materials, but it could be a strain on budgets.

“Have our coaches even really given a lot of thought to, do we have hand sanitizers? Well, you can’t even get hand sanitizer,” said Que Tucker, the executive director of North Carolina’s High School Athletic Association. “Well do we have disinfectant wipes, so we can wipe off the sled once we finish pushing it around and the next individual is ready to go? How are we gonna wipe that down? Do we have the wipes? 

“And those kinds of materials are in short supply.”

If a player or coach tests positive for COVID-19, most states will take their cues from their state or county health departments, as well as the CDC. The CDC currently recommends that anyone who has had close contact with an individual who tests positive for the coronavirus stay home for 14 days following exposure.

Of the states that did provide details of what a positive coronavirus test response would look like, contact tracing and testing was often a stipulation. So was immediately quarantining anyone who tests positive. 

Jason West, head of communications for Missouri’s organization, said it could look like the policy that was in place for the state basketball championships before they were canceled:  If one person with a team has symptoms or a fever, that team could be automatically disqualified. In Alabama, where schools reopened, including athletic facilities, on June 1, they’ll follow guidance from the state’s department of education that includes closing off areas used by an infected person for up to 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting. In Iowa, where summer baseball and softball leagues start games on June 15 with fans in attendance, a positive test will trigger a chain reaction from the school to Iowa’s department of public health, which can then start tracing and testing.

Ultimately, plans are needed not just to avoid the virus, but to deal with it if it comes. Otherwise, even if seasons start, they may not finish, if entire teams must be in periodic 14-day quarantines.

“One of the big concerns is just that integrity of communication,” said Bill Faflick, the executive director in Kansas. “A kid shouldn’t want to play football so badly or be in the marching band so terribly much that they would misrepresent symptoms and conditions that they were exposed to and potentially subject teammates and opponents.”

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When games start, if games start

Iowa, which will hold its summer high school baseball and softball leagues, is a good model to work from. Iowa’s guidance calls for daily symptom checks and for temperatures to be checked at home prior to athletes attending practices or games. 

During practices, coaches are to ensure social distancing between players and only essential personnel are allowed on the field during games. Weight rooms are closed for now. Players are encouraged to bring their own equipment. Shared equipment is sanitized before and after games. Fans are allowed at games, with limited bleacher capacity and the use of personal chairs encouraged.

Four schools have decided not to play, though individual athletes could reportedly play for other schools without penalty.

“It’s been phrased to me this way on the radio, and I’m a little uncomfortable with it,” said Chris Cuellar, the state association’s communications director, “but we are kinda the guinea pig as far as high school sports goes for what can happen here.”

As far as what Iowa’s success or failure means for other states, it’s impossible to know now. Playing baseball or softball is a different animal from football, the sport that has the most contact and often drives the most revenue.

With most states reopening, most high school associations have plans to start getting back on the field at during the summer.

For now, that means conditioning in small groups. That’s in part because kids generally haven’t been active since mid-March, when most states shut down, so they’ll need to build up before going full tilt. It’s also a way to enable social distancing, usually in an outdoor setting, to keep risk of transmission low.

NFHS guidance recommends this sort of set up during phase 1, with no locker rooms used, equipment and surfaces disinfected after use and ample use of hand sanitizer.

Regular screenings for symptoms and temperature checks will also be par for the course in most states.

Eventually, though, if there is a season, that will have to turn into something resembling a normal practice. For most sports — football in particular — social distancing is all but impossible. Some states that already have limited contact periods for football practices feel prepared. But all will rely on coaches to be inventive.

“Passing games — could social distancing become possible, yes? But no defensive backs,” said Jerry Snodgrass, executive director in Ohio. . “You’d have to snap from the shotgun. Things like that.”

While pro leagues and colleges can at least conceive of playing without fans if necessary, doing so would be a last resort for most high schools, as nearly all the revenue comes from gate receipts. State organizations and schools haven’t decided  whether spectators will be allowed in, as there’s still time to decide that later. Rural states with spread-out populations that have seen less of the virus are optimistic.

“You look at a football game in the fall, in a lot of our communities, you’re looking at a couple hundred fans,” said Dan Swartos, executive director in South Dakota. “So right now, we think that the facilities are in place to be able to provide that distancing and to hold our contests as planned. 

“But if we need to make adjustments, we can.”

The issue of officiating

When it comes to officials, who tend to be in an at-risk age group, some states expect problems filling slots, and have discussed ways of shrinking the number they need — such as moving from seven to five-man crews for football games. Other states, citing an uptick in officials during the 2008 financial crisis, expect the recession to make hiring easier.

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Few calendars have changed for the fall, but decision-makers in most states, say it could be a matter of time before they do. Some states have not  even announced whether schools will open in-person, remain online or use a hybrid model, as one district in West Bloomfield, Michigan, plans to do. In many cases, if a school is fully online, it makes sports a nonstarter. 

“Normal is August 1 for fall sport practice to begin,” said Clark Wade, executive director of the Washington, D.C., athletic association, which will be one of the slowest places to return. “… I can tell you, that is not gonna be the normal this year.”

Finances: Economic realities loom

To a person, everyone involved in high school athletics will tell you that money is a secondary concern — holding contests in a safe manner that allows kids to get the experience of playing comes first, even if it means losing money with no fans involved. But that doesn’t change the economic realities at play.

Though most spring competitions, which were canceled across the board, don’t make much money, state organizations that lost some or all of their winter postseasons, particularly basketball tournaments, are already in the hole. Karissa Niehoff, the NFHS’ executive director, said losses ranged from $150,000 to $2 million across state athletic associations.

Very few have cut jobs — of the 30 surveyed for this story, Ohio was the only one to say it had, laying off a receptionist and several part-time employees. But if fall seasons are affected, that could easily change.

Most state organizations have taken out loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, as part of the CARES Act, to protect their employees, but those loans allow for only eight weeks of salary.

In Indiana, the state organization has gotten by despite a $1 million loss, thanks to a rainy day fund it built over the years. But if the fall season is affected, things will change dramatically.

“I think the association will be faced with some really difficult decisions at that point in time about how you continue,” Cox said. “Will you liquidate your investments and use those investments to keep going? Will you lay people off? Will you cut salaries? Will you furlough staff?”

On the individual school level, no football will create the same kind of domino effect as with state organizations.  Football and basketball tend to pay for everything else.

“You could have a situation where, especially some of our smaller schools, if they don’t have football, then it may mean they don’t have some of the other sports,” Tucker said.

“… And once you start going down that path, then you run into the issues of Title IX, and, OK, if you’re not going to have this sport and it happens to be a girl’s sport, what are you doing for the guys?”

Right now, though, everything is at the mercy of the virus.    


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