In one week, high school athletes in Utah will officially be back in action for the first time since the March shutdown — but where things will go from there is still a murky picture at best.
The Utah High School Activities Association discussed some concerns and issues during Tuesday morning’s Board of Trustees teleconference meeting, emphasizing that the highest priorities are ensuring the safety of students while making school as normal as possible.
That’s a tough balancing act when talking about sports during a global pandemic.
UHSAA affirmed its July 9 decision to continue with fall sports as planned but the situation is still fluid and there will be some significant changes to the traditional way things have been done in the past.
As outlined in its “Return to Play” guidelines, the activities association reiterated the importance of steps like temperature and symptom checks, social distancing, wearing face coverings and having accurate rosters for the purpose of contract tracing.
Representatives from school districts along the Wasatch Front, including Alpine School District, talked about an agreement they made last week to limit the number of fans at all sporting events to 25% of capacity and some are planning to require tickets (unpaid in many cases) at every level of competition.
One of the questions discussed was why high school sports in Utah would allow fans when professional and college sports aren’t allowing them at this point.
Tom Sherwood, principal at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, said that high school athletes are made up of minors and that having them play sports where they could get hurt without their parents present creates an uncertain situation.
He also noted that high school venues in Utah are much smaller than those of college and professional sports, which makes them easier to manage as schools can manage the numbers of spectators and enforce distancing and face covering requirements.
He added that his district and others are also planning on livestreaming every event whenever internet access allows that to be the possible.
Another of the challenges the UHSAA faces is finding solutions when high schools in the Salt Lake City area are in the moderate-risk “orange” phase while others across the state are in the low-risk “yellow” phase or the new-normal “green” phase.
Those situations may require extra flexibility and communication as venue changes are made or schedules are adjusted.
UHSAA executive director Rob Cuff told the board that he believes communication will be vital as the different teams, schools, districts and the state organization work to navigate the various challenges.
“We will need to communicate with county health departments with regards to venues and what we are doing,” Cuff said. “It’s so important that teams communicate in advance before games so they let fans know about restriction. We made the decision earlier that there would be no forfeits. If one team is not able to play, it will be considered no contest. If another team can play, then we will try to match it up with another team to be able to play a game.”
While flexibility will be key to make sports a reality during COVID-19, UHSAA will not necessarily be flexible with its transfer rules.
There have been rumors of athletes from California, Arizona and Nevada moving to Utah in large numbers because they are unable to play sports in their home states but the UHSAA emphasized that such situations would require those athletes to meet current guidelines before being allowed to compete at the varsity level.
The reality, as many of those present acknowledged during the meeting, is that many decisions about how things will go this fall will be in the hands of state government leaders as well as local health departments.
The ideal is for every team, school and district to do everything in their power to be as safe as possible.
“No one wants to be the one who hosted a football game where there was an outbreak,” Sherwood said. “I’ve met with our coaches and we’ve talked about how this year we are in it for participation. It’s not about championships. We don’t even know if there will be championships. Our motivation is as pure as it can be and that is to enable kids to participate. We need to be responsible to keep the season going as long as we can. It’s a different environment this year and we all need to do our part in this.”
For updated information on the UHSAA’s “Return to Play” guidelines, go to http://uhsaa.org.