The question isn’t whether fall high school sports will start on time in Utah.
After the Utah High School Activities Association Board of Trustees decided July 9 to proceed with fall sports as scheduled, the BOT affirmed its July 9 decision in a meeting Tuesday morning as it reevaluated the ever-changing fall sports season and guidelines as they relate to COVID-19.
The question is now whether fall high school sports will finish, whether the season will be shortened, interrupted or paused altogether.
No one knows the answer because no one knows at what point the health climate will necessitate such action either at the sports level or at the school level.
UHSAA executive director Rob Cuff once again strongly affirmed that if schools go into soft closure like they did in March, which means no in-person school attendance, sports will be shut down again.
The March cancellation was historic for many reasons. It was the first time since World War II that a spring sport didn’t contest a state tournament (there was no baseball tournament in 1943).
Boys track and field contested a state meet every year from at least 1911 to 2019, a span of 108 years.
Cuff has been very clear in the two BOT meetings with his language, using terms such as “if” there’s a postseason, “if” the UHSAA has to have a shortened fall season, and telling potential out-of-state transfer inquirers that the UHSAA can’t guarantee a full season.
There’s the chance fall sports go down the same path but, in the meantime, boys golf contests are now allowed, football and soccer teams officially started practice and tryouts on Monday, and the first girls soccer games are scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 4.
For now, the UHSAA is tweaking and finalizing its safety plan, which includes standard fare such as required mask wearing in the orange phase, maintaining a current team roster to assist health departments’ contact tracing, daily symptom and temperature checking of student athletes, increased hand hygiene, and splitting practices up into groups called “pods.”
It was also revealed during the meeting that districts’ plans for capping attendance at sporting events have almost been finalized.
Per a protocol sheet obtained by the Standard-Examiner, the Davis School District has held meetings with a handful of Salt Lake districts and that group has tentatively agreed to limit spectator attendance to 25% of capacity.
“We’ve all pretty much agreed to, to my understanding, has been about a 25% capacity in all sports for spectators and that meeting included representatives from Davis, Salt Lake, Jordan, Granite, Canyons and Alpine districts,” said board member Tom Sherwood, principal of Brighton High in Cottonwood Heights.
It’s not clear how that would work for teams — such as a handful of soccer teams in Region 1 including Roy, Syracuse, Davis and Layton — that don’t play home games at sites where attendance can be regulated, such as a football stadium.
Alpine School District superintendent Sam Jarman questioned, amid the news of some professional and college teams allowing no fans at games this year, why high school sporting events were going to allow fans.
“We are dealing with minors in most cases and to have these students, especially in football, participating in a very significant contact sport without parents present, I think does create a certain element of uncertainty,” Sherwood said. “I think parents should be able to be there in case of an emergency, in case something happens on the field with their minor child. I think that that’s a good argument as to why we should allow some spectators at our events.”
A Weber School District spokesperson indicated Tuesday the district is in the planning stages for 50% of capacity for sporting events, though that’s yet to be finalized.
WSD has a board meeting scheduled for Wednesday where the district will discuss its reopening plan.
It’s unclear which direction the Ogden School District is heading, though WSD’s preliminary 50% determination has been made in consultation with the Weber-Morgan Health Department, which has jurisdiction over the Ogden School District as well.
Currently, state health department guidelines allow for a maximum of 6,000 spectators for an outdoor event of 3,000 for an indoor event.
Cuff stressed that navigating this situation will include week-by-week evaluations and thorough communication.
“Remember that communication is paramount here, we have got to make sure that we’re communicating with our county health department and where these venues are located because if we’re not aware of what restrictions are in place with our county health department, the game’s not going to be finished before we’re shut down,” Cuff said. “It says up to 6,000 outside. That doesn’t mean we have 6,000 come, it means how can we accommodate in the layout of the stadium that we have a certain number of fans and still be social distancing and doing the things and restrictions that are in place from the county health department where the venue is located.”
Many of the hypothetical questions — how many players would quarantine on a team if one tests positive, how would rescheduling games work, how will it work when schools in “orange” areas are scheduled to play schools in “yellow areas” — won’t be answered until specific situations arise.
“We have to be good stewards. If we’re not smart with how we treat this thing, we’re going to find ourselves with an uptick in cases and we’ll be back to an orange or, heaven forbid, a red, and we’re not going to be permitted to even have activities or in-person school, Washington County superintendent Larry Bergeson said. “So we’ve got to preach and teach that. We’re going to learn as we implement this thing.”
UHSAA Board member Laura Belnap, who also serves as a Utah State Board of Education representative mostly covering south Davis County, stressed that the UHSAA shouldn’t feel compelled to get games in just for the sake of playing games.
“We love sports, we want our kids to be engaged and involved, but I just wanted to make sure that we continually think about what is our safest approach, and sometimes it might not be to play the game,” Belnap said.