COVID-19 cases are spiking nationwide, forcing high school administrators to make tough decisions about whether to postpone or cancel sports. In Idaho, the high school football state championships will take place this week with a limited number of fans, while winter seasons are planned to start on time.
To gauge how the Idaho High School Activities Association (IHSAA) is navigating its decision-making in the COVID-era, the Idaho State Journal spoke with IHSAA Executive Director Ty Jones.
ISJ: What was the impact on high school sports of Governor Brad Little’s decision to take Idaho back to Stage 2?
TJ: That’s probably a question better asked to the school districts, but I can tell you what I think the school districts would say. Most of them had plans in place based on the state’s Stage 3 guidance that the governor had. It came fairly quick — I want to say three or four weeks after we went to Stage 3, we went back down to Stage 2. I know a lot of school districts had just finished up their planning for how they were going to deal with Stage 3, and now they’re going back to the drawing board again.
ISJ: And in Stage 2, that means no fans will be allowed at games? (Schools that filed an exemption prior to the governor’s ruling will be allowed to have fans for a few more days. The exemption for American Falls basketball, for example, expires on Nov. 22.)
TJ: Well, that’s what the governor’s plan said.
ISJ: Before the governor took the state back down to Stage 2, cases were still on the rise in Idaho. Did the IHSAA ever have discussions to tell schools whether they could or could not have fans rather than leave it up to the governor?
TJ: I wouldn’t say our board focused necessarily on fans or not. We talked about it a little bit, but our board focus at the time was, will we start on time or not?
Before we went back to Stage 2, our board decided at that time they felt it was best to leave those decisions up to the local school districts and start on time.
ISJ: How did you come to the decision to start the season on time rather than delaying it?
TJ: I don’t want to say it was a pretty simple thought process, but we basically had a couple of suggestions from some member schools and some thoughts from some individual athletic directors. We gave our board a couple of options and wanted to see where they were at. The options were: Do you want to start on time? Do you want to delay? Do you want to delay longer? I think we gave them three options. But, really, we were discussing to start on time or to not start on time. Because if we decided to start on time, we didn’t need to go any further as far as changing anything because nothing was changing. If they would have said, ‘I think we need to delay,’ we would have had to discuss what that delay was going to look like.
ISJ: How is the IHSAA using data and local health information to guide decisions?
TJ: Well, really, the fans and the masks is not a mandate or a suggestion from the IHSAA, as far as the data that’s given. I know a lot of the school districts are using that. But, for us, we haven’t used it to that extent yet because we didn’t make any mandates that we were going to pause the season because we saw this percentage of cases, or cancel a season based upon a certain percentage. We didn’t use those because we opted to continue on with business as usual.
ISJ: How important is it to you to make sure the spring season commences after those kids lost their season last year because of COVID?
TJ: It was probably one of the No. 1 things we’ve been telling people is, ‘The last thing we want to do — if we had to change any of our tournaments or any of our calendars — was to impact the spring sports season, if at all possible, because they did miss last year.’ Our board is well aware of that. It would be what we want to do anyway, but there’s a more heightened awareness with the spring sports more than any other level because they lost their season last year.”
ISJ: Your fall sports all made it to the end of the season, but what did the IHSAA learn from the fall season that will help you complete the winter season?
TJ: More than anything else, we learned that when our schools apply the procedures they have set up — as far as safety and risk mitigation and things like that — that the chances they are able to accomplish a successful season increase exponentially. We didn’t have a lot of cases, but one case is one too many. But the schools, for the most part, were able to take their plans and their processes and able to finish the season. There were changes. I think mostly every school, either through their practice procedures or their game procedures or their fan procedures or their logistical procedures — pretty much every school in the state had changes they dealt with.
ISJ: What challenges does the winter season present given that all three sports are indoors?
TJ: That presents huge challenges for us. Well, you listed the No. 1 — it’s indoors. You’re talking confined spaces and when you’re outside, it’s just easier. When I go to football games or when I was at the state cross country meet, people would walk close by and I’d just walk away. It’s honestly that simple in an outdoor venue the vast majority of the time. It’s not that simple in an indoor venue. A lot of times this year our football teams wouldn’t go into the locker rooms at halftime. There are just certain logistical issues (in the winter). You can’t take a team outside in Pocatello in January to have a halftime talk. It’s not going to work. It’s the confined spaces that, I believe, are the most worrisome for all of our schools.
ISJ: Did you give schools any additional procedures or protocols or basically tell them to continue following the ones already laid out?
TJ: I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a tweak, but we took a lot of information the committees used in the fall sports. We had a committee for every fall sport that we have. We took a lot of that information and the winter sports committees applied as much of it as they could to what they wanted to do. There were some things as far as social distancing and the sanitation aspect, as well as what would happen if — we spent a lot of time dealing with if there is a COVID-related cancellation, who makes the cancellation? It’s the district superintendent. But does that count as a game? The answer to that is no, it’s not a game because it’s not a win or a loss or a forfeit — it’s nothing. We applied some of those things because they simply made sense to continue to use.
ISJ: Do you have any examples of how that may be implemented for a specific sport?
TJ: I’ll use what the wrestlers did. So we had a lot of information come to us from the National Federation of High Schools. They had some things they suggested. The vast majority of what they suggested, our wrestling group also suggested. One of them was, they changed the way weigh-ins are done on the National Federation level. So we tweaked ours even a little bit more. So if you go to a wrestling tournament this year, you’re probably going to see weigh-ins occurring in the gym rather than the confined spaces of a locker room. Now you can weigh them in the gym. It’s going to look different as far as where the chairs sit at a wrestling tournament or how close people are to mats or what happens pre- and post-match as far as handshakes with the officials and opposing coaches. Those are going to go away. There’s no reason for them to shake hands with the opposing coaches. Just small, minor things like that.
ISJ: During the fall season, were there a lot of schools that didn’t adhere to what health organizations recommended as far as masks, social distancing, etc.?
TJ: Oh, honestly, I’m sure that there were. We didn’t require them to report after every game. We never have. I realize that this year is a lot different but I’m sure there were schools that said, ‘We’re going to do business as usual.’ I’ll take, maybe, a lot of the 1A schools when they play football. They socially distance kind of naturally because of the way they like to watch the games. A lot of them will follow the action up and down the sidelines in a pack, but they’re not that close. Really, I wouldn’t say a lot of the 1A schools had to change how they watched football, but they were already pretty socially distanced anyway.
ISJ: OK. But is the IHSAA allowed to tell fans if they can or cannot come into a regular-season game without a mask, or is that up to the district?
TJ: Generally it’s up to the school. If our board wanted to make that call, they could. But, I wouldn’t think that our board would — our board is very much into local control and letting individual districts deal with their own district. It’s pretty tough to tell someone from Coeur d’Alene that their situation looks exactly the same as it would in North Gem. It’s not an apples to apples thing. There does need to be a sense of individuality within each decision, and those are best made by the school districts.
ISJ: How would you assess how the fall season went in relation to COVID?
TJ: Well the fact that we were able to finish has been fantastic for our kids. We had some bumps. We had some situations occur where teams couldn’t play and that’s really unfortunate. Our No. 1 goal right from the start was to hopefully allow kids to be able to participate safely in contests. For the most part, I think that our schools were able to do that. Like I said, there were some teams that couldn’t participate in the district tournament or the state tournament because of COVID-related issues. I would say, given the circumstances, it was an extremely successful season considering everything schools were dealing with. But it was far from perfect.
ISJ: Do you know how many schools weren’t able to finish the season because of COVID?
TJ: I want to say somewhere between five and 10. We had one school that qualified for state volleyball but had to pull out of the tournament because they had some cases go through their team. We had, I want to say four or five volleyball teams that could not finish the season — didn’t even get to play their district tournament. I would say, probably, five to 10 that didn’t finish the season but, probably, 20-plus (varsity teams that missed games with COVID) throughout the regular season.
ISJ: What are your thoughts about 20 teams being affected by COVID?
TJ: You don’t want to hear of anybody that’s affected. It’s like any injury or sickness. None of that is good. But when you take into consideration, like, each 5A school has two soccer teams, two cross country teams, a volleyball team and a football team at each individual level. You’re talking close to 15 to 20 teams for all the 5A schools. So if you have 20-25 5A schools, that’s about 300 total teams (just for 5A). We have thousands of teams and we had 20 varsity teams that were impacted, that we know of. So, the percentages are pretty (good). But one team that has to pause is still one too many.
ISJ: Did you hear of any teams passing COVID to their opponents?
TJ: No, I never heard that. I’m not saying it didn’t happen but we did not hear of any (cases) that were contact traced back to an opponent they played.
ISJ: Though it was a decision by the governor to have no fans, what would you tell parents who are angry they can’t watch their kids play sports? And how will they be able to follow along?
TJ: Well, a lot of our schools have Pixellots or cameras in their gyms. That’s the easiest way to follow it. I get that parents want to watch their kids play. I mean, I’m a parent myself and I really like watching my kids participate in activities. It’s not our rule. It’s not something we came up with. I know they’re frustrated because, more than anything else, they do want to watch their kids participate. That’s going to be tough for a lot of schools. I know they’re trying to make plans for that right now.