Schools across the Grand Canyon State can restart their athletics programs in mid-August, according to the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
The Association’s Executive Board released its blueprint for members last Thursday, delaying the start of various fall sports to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The earliest sports program to return will be boys and girls golf, which can hold their first practices on Aug. 17.
Both cross country and swimming & diving can hold their first practices on Aug. 24, with girls volleyball holding theirs on Aug. 31.
Football will be the last to launch in earnest, with programs holding their first practices on Sept. 7.
The idea behind the delay is to help schools maximize the time needed to ensure locker rooms and other facilities are up to state health department and Centers for Disease Control standards, according to AIA executive director David Hines.
Hines believes the return of sports can be a blessing for players and coaches alike, giving the former a shot at normalcy in an age of upheaval.
“Coaches are going to have to mask up at all times, and the kids are going to have to have masks on right up until they enter competition,” Hines said.
Hines said the AIA has protocols in place for school trainers and medical personnel, so they can monitor athletes and coaches for COVID-19 symptoms.
He believes the association’s decision can provide a bit of reprieve for students, who have had their lives thrown in disarray by the rampaging virus.
“For the kids, and for their mental health, we’re trying to give them a chance to go out and exercise,” Hines said. “We’re concerned with COVID-19, but we’re also concerned when they’re not doing anything.”
Hines cited the association’s decision to cut the winter sports season short and cancel the spring season outright in March when discussing the adverse effect on students.
Hines is hopeful that the various fall sports can have full and productive seasons, given everyone follows the protocols that have been put in place.
“It’s definitely a challenge. But again, we went through last spring where all of our sports had their seasons cut short or cancelled and kids were absolutely devastated,” Hines said. “And if kids can be as safe as they can then we can have a full fall sports season.”
The schedule for sport-related championships is for golf to be held between Oct. 26 and 29 and Nov. 2-5. Cross country’s championship would be held on Nov. 12-13; swimming and diving would be on Nov. 5-7; girls volleyball would be held between Nov. 12-21 and football would be on Dec. 11-12.
Under that plan, the regular season for each sport would be staggered, with golf starting on Aug. 24, cross-country starting on Sept. 9, swimming & diving starting on Sept. 14, girls volleyball beginning on Sept. 21, and football beginning between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3.
Not all coaches share Hines’ sunny outlook, however. Longtime Canyon del Oro High School coach Dustin Peace is skeptical that such a plan can work, given the contagious nature of the virus.
“I think it will be hard for the AIA to help serve everyone now that local health departments are providing the guidance,” Peace said. “The AIA has been following state leadership and now education has shifted to local guidance.
“So, backing up the start of the fall season will help more programs, though it won’t help everyone. I don’t think this helps much at all in Tucson and does not help the programs that have already cancelled fall sports.”
Peace believes high school athletes are in a no-win situation, given the lack of opportunity to play their given sport after graduation.
He believes that reality distorts the players’ drive to return to action, which is why Peace believes the AIA should give equal weight to all parties involved to ensure an equitable solution.
“High school players are really in the worst position because if you choose to play and it doesn’t work out, then it’s over,” he said. “College and pros have another opportunity. So, these kids and their parents are in a really tough spot.”
Peace’s opinion is shared by the Dorados’ junior running back, Stevie Rocker, who committed to play college football at the University of Arizona earlier this month.
Rocker believes the current reality that programs find themselves in is a no-win situation, as players and coaches have to weigh the benefits of athletics with the potential for communal spread of the virus.
“It’s a scary situation that we all have to go through, but at the same time having the football season is something that a lot of people want to see,” Rocker said. “So, it definitely has its ups and downs.”
Hines believes the state is as prepared for sports to return as possible, saying the plan is for anyone who tests positive to quarantine for 10-to-14 days, in accordance with CDC and local health department recommendations.
“Our guidance has been that if somebody contracts [COVID-19], that we communicate with the representative of the school in question to have them notify the rest of team,” Hines said. “We want them to monitor their symptoms for a few days, and if they start to feel sick to report that and stay home.
“Obviously, if you start to have multiple cases per school then the recommendation is for that team to quarantine for 10-14 days, in accordance with local health department recommendations.”
Peace believes the various school districts across the state should have greater flexibility, given the virus’ uneven spread across various regions.
“I do not think schools and regions should suffer from one another,” Peace said. “For example, if Tucson is not ready come Sept. 7 then Phoenix shouldn’t wait if they are. However, because Phoenix is ready, and Tucson is not does not mean we should be punished by losing our season or games.”
For now, coaches, players and AIA officials alike are hoping for the best, moving forward with their plans until such actions prove untenable.
“We’re just crossing our fingers,” Hines said. “We’re hoping that everybody follows protocols that we’ve put in place to be as safe as possible and we’re going to try to be as safe as possible.”