With less than two weeks until high school football practice is set to begin in Wisconsin, the state body that governs sports has no plan yet to alter fall sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But some school administrators are pushing a plan that would move fall sports back by almost half a school year.
Madison Metropolitan, Middleton and Sun Prairie school districts have all announced they will start the school year with virtual learning. Verona Area School District administrators are recommending to the board that it consider a “Virtual+” plan that combines online learning and on-site staff support for meeting students’ learning and social-emotional needs.
“In a perfect world, the Big Eight Conference would like to be on the same level and playing field when it comes to decisions that are made for sports,” district athletic director Joel Zimba said during a Verona Area Board of Education Monday, July 20. “If everyone says they are going to go virtual and there will not be any competitions, then it would come down to the individual districts themselves as to whether they want to implement certain plans to give students more opportunities or allow kids to practice.”
As of that meeting, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association was still planning on having fall sports begin and continue as scheduled with COVID-19 safety guidelines; however, a proposal crafted by southwest Wisconsin administrators would move the fall sports season back to spring 2021.
District superintendent Dean Gorrell said the idea of hosting games would be “incongruous” if the board selects a mostly virtual reopening plan for the fall.
“If the board does choose the ‘Virtual+,’ it doesn’t make much sense to be promoting games and competitions,” he said. “That’s another heartbreaking aspect of all of this.”
However, Gorrell said the district’s “Virtual+” school reopening could be an opportunity for coaches to provide practices for student-athletes that would involve proper social distancing and health protocols from Public Health Madison and Dane County.
“To me, it’s critical that we get kids together with their peers; that we do so safely and as frequently as we can,” he said.
Football, soccer and volleyball are all deemed high- or medium-risk sports amid COVID-19 and are barred from hosting competitions, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
“When it comes to athletics, there are risks that we are taking by saying yes or no with those decisions,” Zimba said. “For high- and medium-risk sports right now, there can’t be any competitions. Even if we were going to say there were going to be competitions, there are certain sports where that can’t happen.”
WIAA executive staff members are looking to add a meeting by the end of July to consider flipping the fall sports season to the spring and moving back the spring season into the summer.
Fall sports would begin in March and wrap up in late May, and spring sports would begin at the end of May and extend into July, according to a copy of the letter from the southwest Wisconsin schools administrators.
The school year finishes at the end of June, so continuing into July would likely require a waiver or approval by schools. Pushing the fall sports season back to the spring would buy time for more COVID-19 treatment advancements and time to find a vaccine, but it assumes a decline in positive cases, Gorrell said.
“Once you start saying you are competing even within the realm of how safe those activities may be, you are exposing yourself to other districts and how other districts are functioning within their own guidelines,” Zimba said. “You hope that everyone is as thoughtful as we are as a district. There is exposure, there and no one can deny that.”
If fall sports were moved to the spring, the winter sports season would be the first to start, either on schedule or pushed back to January 2021. The proposal could mean shortened seasons.
Dane County is still in a modified version of Phase 2 of its reopening plan, limiting outdoor gatherings to 25 or less and indoor gatherings to 10 or less. Eight of the 10 Big Eight Conference members are located within the Dane County, with the only exceptions being the two School District of Janesville high schools.
Geography isn’t the only consideration district leaders are weighing – improving mental health is another area of focus for the district. It’s been more than four months since the Verona boys hockey team skated off the ice after winning a WIAA Division 1 state championship.
A study conducted by Tim McGuine, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in conjunction with the WIAA, found 33% of student-athletes are displaying symptoms of depression and 40% haven’t been doing any activity since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March.