The National Federation of State High School Associations held a media briefing Thursday to discuss how the return to sports was going in states nationwide as schools try to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Football went ahead as normally played in 30 states, with five more states playing a season without crowning a state champion; Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Wisconsin. The other 15 states, including Illinois, plus the District of Columbia delayed football until later in the school year.
In addition, 30 states went ahead with volleyball as slated, with Alaska, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and Minnesota playing a volleyball season with no state champion.
Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, mentioned a report from Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis, that out of the first 500 COVID-19 cases linked to schools, either students or staff, 83% were traced back to sports. In Minnesota, officials traced more than, 3,400 cases to sports.
“I think we have to listen to doctors, we have to listen to science,” Solomon said. “We want them back as quickly as possible, but cases are going to continue to get worse. Unfortunately, the youth sports system is so fragmented, it’s prevented standard decisions state to state or sport to sport. If you’re in California, you’re probably pretty frustrated seeing Arizona right next to you playing, but we’ve never set that national standard.”
A University of Wisconsin study released last week found that 271 cases of COVID-19 were linked to high school athletes out of the 2,318 total cases in Wisconsin residents age 14 to 17.
That study found that football had the highest number of cases, 86, although it also had the highest number of participants. Football had a case rate of 1,050 cases per 100,000 people, which was lower than cheerleading (1,420/100,000) or swimming (1,250/100,000). Girls tennis, with 608 cases per 100,000 people, had the lowest case rate.
But Solomon said that there has been skepticism surrounding that study, which was conducted through surveys of 207 schools that had restarted sports.
“It was a self-reported study,” he said. “There were questions about some of the methodology around it. The opinion was it couldn’t draw the conclusions that were drawn. It’s an important question to ask, but we want to make sure we’re putting good science out there.”
For winter sports moving forward, NFHS executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff said that some precautions would have to be in place, from coaches wearing face masks to closing the doors to spectators.
As of Thursday, 24 states are planning to move ahead with basketball with no change, 18 states are modifying the basketball schedule, either delaying the start or condensing the schedule, and nine have yet to make a decision.
In wrestling, 14 states are moving ahead as planned, 27 have modified the schedule and nine have not announced a decision yet.
The status of basketball in Illinois remained in limbo Thursday with Gov. JB Pritzker saying the sport was delayed until the spring. The Illinois High School Association announced Wednesday it intended to move forward with basketball practices beginning Nov. 16 and games scheduled to start Nov. 30. Wrestling was delayed until the late spring season.
“We’re seeing in the sport of wrestling, some very creative thinking,” Niehoff said. “… Our states are looking at ways to keep teams together in pods, to fully sanitize mats between matches, to encourage multiple singlets to be used and to change after each match into a fresh singlet, to do weigh-ins that are not the entire group, but again in pods, even separate out weight-class competitions.”
NFHS issued some precautions in May which schools could implement to make high school sports safer in the middle of the pandemic. Those ranged from asking players to bring their own water bottles instead of relying on a source of water which would be used by the whole team to asking athletes to not share towels.
“Even just being part of a sports setting in a team, there are still risks beyond if a transmission occurs on the field,” Solomon said. “There are still locker rooms, there are still sidelines, there are still team meetings, there are still team dinners.”