No area of society has gone untouched by the novel coronavirus pandemic, including sports. After every level of athletics was rocked by the virus and forced to shut down in the spring, professional leagues have figured out ways to return to their fields of play in as safe a manner as possible. Meanwhile, decisions are still being made on the collegiate, high school and youth levels about when and how sports will return.
In our Playing Through COVID series, NBC Sports Washington will tell the story of those decisions and how they impact the people involved, including athletes, coaches, parents and more. The series launched with an interview of Dr. Sunil Budhrani, ER Physician, CEO and Chief Medical Officer at Innovation Health. Watch the full interview here.
As the 2020-21 school year approaches in the DMV, answers of whether sports will accompany it in the fall have slowly trickled in.
And thus far, the answer is overwhelmingly no.
Washington, D.C. and Virginia have both announced plans to adopt a Condensed Interscholastic Plan, which would push the start of winter sports back to a tentative Dec. 14 start date and have what are traditionally fall sports follow in February. Maryland announced plans to postpone fall and winter sports during the first semester, which ends Jan. 27.
Current calendar plans announced for the resumption of sports are listed below:
Winter season (basketball, indoor track and field, cheerleading)
First practice date: December 14 -- Game dates: January 4 to February 28
Fall season (cross-country, football, soccer and volleyball)
First practice date: February 1 -- Game dates: February 22 to April 16
Spring season (baseball, softball, tennis, track and field, ultimate disc, chess)
First practice date: March 29 -- Game dates: April 19 to June 13
Winter season (basketball, gymnastics, indoor track, swim/dive, wrestling)
First practice date: December 14 -- Game dates: December 28 to February 20
Fall season (cheer, cross country, field hockey, football, golf, volleyball)
First practice date: February 15 -- Game dates: March 1 to May 1
Spring season (baseball, lacrosse, soccer, softball, tennis, track and field)
First practice date: April 12 -- Game dates: April 26 to June 26
Present in each region's announcement of a postponement was mention of a collaboration with local health officials in determining those plans. District of Columbia State Athletic Association executive director Clark Ray reiterated that point on a town hall hosted by NBC Sports Washington’s Chad Ricardo on July 17.
“Based on the information that we had, based on our conversations with our department of health, and based on input from the public schools, the public charter schools, the private schools and all of those who represent the multiple conferences of our private schools, this was an easy decision to make but an agonizing decision to send out,” Ray said. “It’s the right decision at this time based on the current science and data that we have.”
Virginia High School League executive director Dr. John W. “Billy” Haun echoed how difficult the decision was during a virtual press conference on July 27, though Virginia’s plan left open the possibility for sports to return sooner than outlined if the state moves beyond Phase III in its recovery plan. Or if guidelines for Phase III are revised to allow high-risk activities.
“This has been an extremely difficult decision,” Haun said. “All of you know how important high school activities are to our student athletes, to our coaches, to our parents, just our school communities. This was not a decision that was made lightly. Everybody took this very seriously. I think it’s safe to say in our office and probably with the executive committee, there have been very few of us that have had a full nights’ sleep in a long time just thinking about all the implications here that are involved.”
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Those same implications are part of the reason why decisions on fall sports were delayed until recently across the state of Maryland.
Rather than enforce a statewide decision on athletics, Maryland initially left the decision on how to proceed this fall to each individual school system, of which there are 24. The state set a minimum set of guidelines, but each local system had the authority to be more restrictive based on local circumstances in regards to the virus. It’s a path that left many in limbo but that Maryland governor Larry Hogan said was consistent with how the state made other decisions.
“The state sets some parameters, but people were not wanting us to interfere with those local decisions,” Hogan said at his press conference on Maryland’s COVID-19 recovery July 22. “County governments have always had their individual authorities to make decisions that are more restrictive than what we’ve done, not less restrictive. They can’t ignore state law. But our plans always incorporated the flexibility of local governments.”
That autonomy resulted in varying decisions across Maryland’s local school systems. While most never announced a decision before Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Assoication finally made an overarching decision last Monday, others had postponed fall sports, and Montgomery County canceled fall and winter sports altogether. The variation in decisons wasn't much different than the current NCAA football scene where some conferences have already postponed sports, while others are holding out hope for a season.
Montgomery County superintendent Dr. Jack R. Smith said the decision to cancel was devastating.
“It’s not just sports programs. It’s all of our extracurricular and cocurricular programs that are so important to our students,” Smith said on a virtual recovery plan media briefing July 22. “And we understand that this is devastating, and we’re gonna continue to look at how we can support students through the digital world or whatever other strategies that people may be able to come up with. I’ve seen some examples of this that are really tremendous, and we’re going to continue to push hard to make sure that we can do whatever we can do in this very important part of a student’s educational experience.”
Montgomery's decision at the time likely spoke to a larger concern in coronavirus trends cited by Hogan. While Montgomery’s positivity rate was down 90% from a high of 32.64% on April 20 to 3.27%, Hogan said there was concern that the positivity rate for Marylanders under 35 years (6.57%) old was higher than it was for those 35 or older (3.50%). And while it has dropped significantly since peaking, it has recently seen a slight uptick. Additionally, there had been a slight uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state and, according to Hogan, some of those were younger patients.
These were the types of numbers being considered across D.C., Maryland and Virginia when deciding whether schools should move to a virtual-only format this fall. Most have decided they will, but some will open at full capacity, while others are going with a hybrid approach. Those decisions had a direct influence on what local jurisdictions decided in regards to how to proceed with sports. MPSSAA cited as much in its announcement to postpone sports.
"This decision comes in light of the recent announcements of local school systems to begin education virtually and provides each school system with options for the gradual increase of student engagement for the physical and social-emotional health of students," the statement read.
MPSSAA said it's finalizing plans for modified competition seasons for all sports in the second semester and will make those plans available at some point prior to the start of the school year, which is Aug. 31.
Private schools in the region aren’t beholden to the same rules enforced by the public governing bodies, but many of them are going in the same direction.
The Interstate Athletic Conference, Independent School League and Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference all announced the postponement of sports until January. The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference said it is canceling fall athletics but exploring scheduling options for a January start.
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