The signs of the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on Utah high school sports have been easy to see during the first three weeks of action in the 2020 fall season:
- Players and coaches are wearing face coverings on the sidelines.
- Spectators are required to be seated further apart and often are limited in numbers.
- Teams don’t shake hands after an event to limit the chances of widespread contagion.
- Some competitions have had to be canceled or postponed.
But here is the good news: Overall, the careful plans put in place to allow high school athletes to compete seem to be working.
“Overall we are very encouraged by the care and precautions that our member schools have taken to allow education-based activities to take place in a safe setting,” Jon Oglesby, assistant director at the Utah High School Activities Association, said in a phone interview Monday. “We’ve done a great deal of training. Our state health department in conjunction with local health departments have been unbelievable in trying to find solutions to some of the potential problems you could have in conducting activities. I think it is has really been an outstanding example of the partnership that can happen when people are working together to find solutions to complex problems.”
As expected, there have been some situations where athletes tested positive for COVID-19, forcing teams to quarantine. Oglesby sympathized with the affected athletes but pointed to those instances as examples of diligence by schools and health departments.
“Having teams quarantine is taking place that the district level in conjunction with local health departments,” Oglesby said. “I think the fact that schools are actively checking and minimizing cases due to that is a positive. I don’t think a team finding that there is a need for a quarantine can be a positive because that shows that we are able — in conjunction with health departments — to isolate issues before they become even more widespread. It is unfortunate that has happened but it is good that the measures are in place to be able to isolate them.”
In addition to the testing, teams are using a variety of risk-reducing efforts including the use of masks and limits on certain types of contact.
Many teams have used fabric “gator” face coverings, which studies have indicated may actually be worse than having no face covering at all because of how they disperse particles that might spread the disease.
When asked about whether the UHSAA might address a health concern, Oglesby said that decisions about changing what are considered as acceptable face coverings would have to be made by the health departments.
While the UHSAA isn’t involved in the quarantine or other health-related decisions, Oglesby said it has tried to be a resource to help teams find other opportunities when games have had to be canceled.
He said that the fact that the state uses a ratings percentage index, or RPI, method to seed teams in the state tournaments means that game adjustments and cancellations don’t have the same impact they would’ve had when the association used other methods.
“This is the ideal system to have to go through what we are going through with regards to postseason seeding,” Oglesby said. “The RPI is calculated off of the games that are played. It is definitely an improvement on how things would’ve been done in the old region-qualifying system.”
The UHSAA is actively examining how health regulations may impact the upcoming state tournament competitions, the first of which is scheduled to take place in just over a month at the end of September.
“It’s been big for our state-tournament venues to work with state and local officials to understand if we can hold our state tournaments there,” Oglesby said. “There has been really good communication with a lot of people in a lot of the state. I think we are in a good place. We are trying to mitigate as much potential risk as possible.”
One of the changes the UHSAA has already made is both moving and separating the annual state cross country meet, which is usually held at Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City. This year the 6A, 5A and 3A teams will compete at Soldier Hollow golf course in Heber, while the 4A, 2A and 1A teams will compete in Cedar City.
He hopes all of the successes don’t result in anyone getting lax in their attention to the precautionary efforts.
“It doesn’t mean that everything is fixed and it’s time to pat ourselves on the back,” Oglesby said. “We have to remain vigilant and work even harder to try to stay ahead of problems, to keep them at a micro level if and when they do occur.”
His message to athletes, coaches, administrators, families and communities is to continue to be unified.
“It’s important to remember that we are all in this together for one thing: To keep kids in the classroom and related to that is what we view as an extension of the classroom in education-based activities,” Oglesby said. “I think the entire state of Utah should be so encouraged by the positive response and the related work that our administrators, teachers, coaches, staff and student-athletes have willfully accepted to stay in the classroom and ensure we are able to stay in our education-based activity settings.
“I would encourage everyone in the state to continue to do the best they can to mask up Utah, to social distance, to practice proper hygiene, to symptom check, to do everything that goes along with the best practices of ensuring health in today’s world. Through our combined focus, we are going to be able to continue to run the race we have been running to maintain education in this COVID-19 era. I’m extremely, extremely grateful that the team we have is the people of the great state of Utah.”