After months of speculation, worry, optimism and most importantly, stress surrounding the Arizona high school football season, it seems all systems are a go.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Governing Board, in conjunction with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, adjusted a key COVID-19 benchmark the association is using to determine when safe for competition to begin. Previously, SMAC recommended cases in each county drop to 10 per 100,000 people, a near impossible number to achieve, before games could take place as scheduled on Sept. 30.
After the latest revisions however, the target number is now 75 cases per 100,000 people. Maricopa County has hovered around 50 cases per 100,000 the last two weeks, along with other counties.
“There were several things in play that led to the change,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said. “We fortunately had other states that went before us, that was very helpful. They have mitigation strategies in place similar to what we have. We needed to see how that was going.
“The board also wants to make sure our modifications are adhered to. That was very important with our sports medicine people to limit exposure as much as possible.”
The initial benchmarks were adopted by the AIA Executive Board as a recommendation from SMAC on Sept. 3. It was at that same time the board approved the existing fall sports timeline.
On Sept. 4, Hines sent an email to school administrators and coaches explaining the benchmarks SMAC was using to determine whether it is safe for games. The 10 per 100,000 cases metric was identified as the one that would present the biggest challenge. The other benchmarks, which include the percentage of hospitalizations for COVID-19 and the percentage of positive tests, had already been met by most counties.
Hines explained the document is “living,” meaning is could be updated with approval from the board. That was made clear Thursday.
“We’ve been given an opportunity to compete in football,” Hines said. “But it could get shut down if people don’t follow the procedures if cases go up and people don’t follow protocol. If that happens, schools, districts and health departments could come in and say, ‘no more.’”
The metric caused an uproar in the Arizona high school football community.
A parent group led by Brad and Brooke Schweigert, Max and Carine Werner and Bryan and Elena Bernardo, sent a letter to board members on Sept. 9, demanding for the guidelines to be changed. Along with the metric, the group also called for revisions to the “close contact” guideline put in place by SMAC, which requires an athlete who has been exposed to someone that tests positive for the virus to be away from team activities for 21 days.
All six parents signed the letter, noting it also had support from the “Parents in support of 2020 football in Arizona” Facebook group, which has more than 1,300 members.
“We would expect our parents to support our kids,” Hines said. “As a former parent, yes, you are very passionate about your own child. But we have to look at the entire picture and we have an entire state that is all over the board.
“We are going to use the medical people, our administrators and our experts to do what is best for all of the kids.”
The updated guidelines pave the way for the AIA to allow games to begin Sept. 30. Ultimately, however, it remains up to districts.
Most East Valley districts have given teams a green light to begin contact, but with some modifications. Tempe Union High School District still requires the use of face masks for all athletes under helmets. Restrictions lighten up farther east.
In Scottsdale, schools have still been barred from contact despite being able to put on pads. In other parts of the Valley, some districts have yet to allow teams on school grounds to practice at all. Tolleson Union High School District and Phoenix Union High School District teams haven’t had an official practice since June. Both districts, however, plan to begin competition later in October.
Hines said he hopes the updated metrics help school districts find a clear path to allow athletes to play this fall.
“We know some districts have been able to do more than others,” Hines said. “To be honest, that happens when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic. Knowing we have some scrimmages next week, we wanted to help teams have the ability to get some hitting in before they had a scrimmage.”
Several scrimmages between teams have already been scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 23, Thursday, Sept. 24 and Friday, Sept. 25. It’ll be the first live action for most teams since the end of the season last December.
Starting Wednesday, Sept. 30, the lights above stadiums will once again burn bright. Hines said it will be a welcoming site after a tense summer.
“I think any of us that have any interest at all in high school athletics knows how important it is for our kids,” Hines said. “I’m excited for the kids, the coaches and the schools, I just have to caution us.
“We have to keep our nose to the ground to do the things that are required so we can continue."