Emotion Bowl 2018

Skyline fans cheer as Skyline High takes on Idaho Falls during the 2018 Emotion Bowl at Ravsten Stadium.

The countdown to the 2020 high school football season has begun, but there may be more questions than answers as the first official day of practice approaches.

All fall sports are scheduled to begin practice on Aug. 10, but football is the only one tabbed as “high risk” in the Idaho High School Activities Association’s recently released and extensively detailed list of guidelines for re-opening sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“High risk” is defined in the document as “Sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.”

What does that mean for the football season in the age of COVID-19?

The IHSAA’s list of guidelines outlines recommendations for each sport to follow to safely restart this fall. More specific details will be worked out by individual school districts and local health officials, so anything can happen between now and the start of the season, which is Aug. 28 for most teams.

“I think we’re going to be able to play,” Rigby coach Armando Gonzalez said. “The problem is once we start playing what happens when a kid tests positive and then those around him have been exposed? That’s the hard question.”

That question will have to be answered before the season starts. Along with the safety guidelines for specific sports, the IHSAA listed four requirements that athletic departments must follow to reopen. Those include compliance with the governor’s reopening plan and stages, a transportation plan, how to deal with a positive test of a player or coach, and a ‘Return to participation plan’ formulated in conjunction with local school districts and health officials.

Gonzalez said the guidelines were a good start to preparing for the season. He noted there will be some adjustments, but he and his staff would educate players on proper protocols. Gonzalez said the coaching staff would probably take on the responsibility of cleaning facilities as warranted, since most schools likely can’t hire extra janitorial services for extensive cleaning.

“Once we get out there and get into the mix of things we’re going to find out what we’re able to do and not do,” he said of the IHSAA recommendations, adding that trying to compete in football with a mask would be a challenge. “I don’t know how that’s going to play out, but other than that I think everything is feasible.”

COVID-19 already forced the cancelation of high school sports in the spring and the virus numbers continue to rise. As of Tuesday night, Idaho reported 19,222 cases (confirmed and probable), 528 new cases, and 160 deaths.

The guidelines and recommendations outlined by the IHSAA, in conjunction with the National Federation of State High School Associations, detail cleaning of equipment, facilities, social distancing when possible with players, officials and coaches, crowd size, and a host of other issues.

As individual school districts continue to evaluate how they’re going to open campuses, they’ll also have to figure out how to manage sports in the new normal.

“Everybody’s goal is to be able to play and play safely,” Teton coach and athletic director Brody Birch said. “Obviously you have to be smart and do everything you can to be safe.”

Even if the season starts on time, it’s likely schedules could be disrupted. If some districts decide to limit travel or neighboring states shut down, it will leave some teams scrambling to fill the void. There’s also the question of how teams and districts handle a situation if a player or coach becomes infected. Does the entire team go into lockdown for two weeks? Three weeks? Do they miss the entire season? How do the playoffs work if a team plays eight games and another only plays four due to COVID-19?

“There are so many unknowns,” Birch said. “Just because we start August 10th doesn’t guarantee that we’ll finish, but the goal is to try … A month ago I felt great about stuff. The last two weeks have been a little more concerning and alarming, but I think everybody is committed to play and play safely.”

According to Maxpreps.com, 37 states have committed to playing football in the fall, although a few have pushed back the start a week or two. Five states and the District of Columbia have pushed back their seasons until spring of 2021, and eight states had still not finalized start dates.

Pushing the season back even a month might be an option in Idaho, although that would likely impact winter sports and athletes that play multiple sports. Moving the season to 2021 would be an issue due to weather, Birch noted.

As of now, teams are pushing ahead with the 2020 season.

“I’m satisfied with the fact we’re taking the necessary steps to get back to playing football,” Sugar-Salem coach Tyler Richins said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with kids and parents and community members and I think, for me, trying to get these kids back to some sense of normalcy is important … Starting August 10th, we’re all excited to get back to doing that.”

No matter what happens, the 2020 football season will likely look a little different, especially if spectators are limited or COVID-19 continues to linger and be a threat throughout the fall.

“It won’t change us,” Hillcrest coach Kevin Meyer said of playing in front of fewer fans. “It will be different, but the bottom line is it’s important to play well and try to get a win, whether it’s with 100 fans or 4,000 fans … We’ll play in a parking lot if we have to. I just want to play.”

“If we only get four games in we’ll take it,” added Richins. “In this situation we’re literally week to week … It’s going to be a rollercoaster. It’s definitely something none of us have seen or had to deal with ever.”

Allan Steele is Sports Editor of the Post Register. Reach him at 208 542-6772 and follow on Twitter at asteele12000