By Sharon Robb
GAINESVILLE, July 21, 2020—While heated discussions continue over how to re-start school this fall, the state decided to keep high school sports on schedule except for the “hot spots” in Florida including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Tampa Bay, Greater Orlando and Jacksonville.
In nearly a five-hour emergency meeting Monday on a zoom platform, the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Board of Directors voted to start the high school fall season on schedule, but only in a few counties around the state because of the rising COVID-19 case numbers.
Orlando-area public schools have already postponed fall sports “until further notice.” Also on Monday, the Georgia High School Association voted to push back fall sports by two weeks, Massachusetts, North and South Carolina are not starting until mid- or late September and California Interscholastic Federation voted to realign its sports calendar, moving fall sports into spring with a start to competition expected in December 2020 or January 2021.
FHSAA Board members and athletic directors Mark Schusterman of Riviera Prep and Carlos Ochoa of Hialeah Gardens were the most vocal during the marathon meeting that featured more than 4,000 listeners/viewers from around the state.
Practices for all fall sports is scheduled to get under way Monday, July 27th, only if district, county and local government rules allow it. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach public schools will not be able to begin practice since they are considered a “hot spot.” Schusterman talked about moving the practice date to Aug. 10 which would have delayed the sports calendar.
“This is a very critical topic right now,” said chairwoman Lauren Otero, athletic director at Tampa Plant. “We have been thrown into the fire with the pandemic.
“This is tied into the mental health and well-being of all students and student- athletes as well as physical health and well being,” Otero said. “We never had a blanket announcement to cancel sports. It never was a topic of discussion.”
With that in mind, the Board voted to keep the full fall calendar in tact including post-season events, state meets and tournaments. Some schools will be allowed flexibility to be allowed to play a full or half season on time or delayed a month or two.
Schools that are unable to start on time will be unable to qualify for the post-season events but will be allowed to continue competing during the regular season or exhibition games during the FHSAA playoffs and post-season meets and tournaments.
One of the most informative presentations was by Dr. Jennifer Maynard of the Mayo Clinic, chairwoman for the FHSAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. She outlined guidelines approved by a SMAC task forced last Thursday that mirror the guidelines of the National High School Federation. The recommendations were distributed to the Board Monday morning.
“It is important to take into account the scientific risks, health of coaches, officials, athletic staff and parents,” Maynard said during her 30-minute presentation.
The recommendations were:
1. Delay the start of football and girls’ volleyball until further notice because of the sports’ high risk for transmission with collision impact and indoor facility as a venue for girls volleyball. SMAC will re-evaluate the Covid data two to three weeks after the start of school year. Student-athletes are students first and foremost, she said. “We need to have at least two weeks of practice to acclimate and avoid injuries before those sports re-start.” The remainder of fall sports are considered “low risk” including golf, cross country (a staggered start will be needed because of contact), bowling, swimming and diving.
2. All FHSAA-member schools need to have Covid screening in place where temperatures are taken daily.
3. Before any participation, athletes must sign a certificate of risk and waiver that is signed by the student-athletes, parent or guardian. Schools should have protocols in place for Covid-positive cases where they should be removed and evaluated followed by a 14-day quarantine. A medicial clearance is needed to return to play much like the concussion clearance.
4. Universal masking and social distancing is a must. Fan attendance should not be allowed at this time, though it is a local district’s decision. No fans in stands is suggested.
“We have a moral and ethical duty to make sound and fair recommendations based on medical facts,” she said. “Football and girls’ volleyball are not medically safe.”
While all the recommendations were approved with unanimous 10-0 votes by the SMAC task force, the FHSAA Board did not vote for the proposals. They voted to re-convene of Aug. 3 at 5 p.m. to consider the recommendations.
Bobby Johns, athletic director at Wewahitchka said if the Governor is supporting school openings and has a fall plan, why shouldn’t the FHSAA stay with its original schedule. His football program would lose $16,000 if it did not compete in its Fall Classic, he said.
If the committee had moved the date, Johns said, “We need to be prepared today to address the dominoes that are going to fall.”
The challenges facing the plans to re-start include equitable conditions for teams to financial stresses for athletic departments particuarly football programs, a major revenue maker to support other sports. There is also a chance athletes would transfer from a “hot spot” county to another county that is able to have a complete schedule.
Miami-Dade has been hardest hit, reaching 22.6 percent positivity in the Florida Department of Health’s according to a Monday report. Schusterman added that golf courses will be limited for high school teams and few pools are open or prepared to host more than two teams on a pool deck for practices and meets.
“We’re basically still at ground zero, and we’re at July 20 right now,” Ochoa said. “We have yet to see a field or building since March.”
High school sports have been in a holding pattern since March when the spring season was cut short because of COVID-19 lockdowns.
“It’s incomprehensible to look at July 27th for official practice,” Ochoa said. “We are stuck in same rut we are in right now. The situation has not improved in the last month.
“We don’t even have a clue what our brick and mortar option of opening schools is,” Ochoa said. “Not until we are in Phase 2 will we do anything. It is students first, athletes second. This is an unknown we have never dealt with.”
Added Schusterman, “There are a lot of challenges. We need to look at a plan to get all three seasons in and look at what’s best for the entire state and base our decision on what is best for the majority.”
Sharon Robb can be reached at email@example.com