Oregon high schools prepare for uncertain restart of sports
With the National Football League playoffs in full swing and the college football championship just fading in the rearview mirror, the question on everybody's mind is this — will there be high school football in Oregon this year?
Will there be high school sports of any kind?
At this point, no one knows for sure. But what most in both the education and athletic communities will tell you, is that getting kids back participating is paramount as effects from the ongoing pandemic continue to take hold.
"Athletics is a co-curricular activity, and I think it is important to get kids back in our building period, safely and responsibly," Forest Grove Athletic Director Doug Thompson said. "I think athletics can provide some of those opportunities for our kids, in a safe environment to get back to their school building.
"Based on the recommendations from the state, I know athletic directors and coaches are ready to provide the safest opportunities for our kids to get back on the field."
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority will make the ultimate decision about high school sports this year, and while Brown's Dec. 23 letter eased statewide COVID-19 restrictions on school districts and aims to restart in-person instruction by February, there are clearly no guarantees in this most unusual of school years.
According to the calendar issued by the Oregon School Activities Association in December, traditional fall sports are scheduled to begin March 1 and continue through April 11 (with practices starting earlier), though football is currently on the governor's list of prohibited activities. Likewise, both volleyball and water polo will only be allowed indoors in counties deemed as Lower, Moderate or High Risk.
As of Tuesday, Jan. 12, 23 of 36 Oregon counties are listed in the Extreme Risk category, including Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Curry, Deschutes, Hood River, Jackson, Jefferson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Linn, Malheur, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Tillamook, Wasco, Washington, Umatilla, Wallowa and Yamhill.
That leaves boys and girls soccer, and boys and girls cross country as the fall-season sports most likely to begin competition in March.
Peter Weber, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association — the governing body for Oregon high school sports and activities — believes that teams will be allowed to start practices in February, at least in some sports.
"Yes, I believe that official high school sports will return in February," he said. "We've had schools across the state playing a variety of sports throughout the last four months. Given the current guidance from the governor and OHA, we feel confident that soccer and cross country, as permitted outdoor activities, are a 'go' for Season 2.
"For volleyball and football, we are hopeful that case counts will lower, more counties will move out of (the) extreme risk designation and guidance will be adjusted to allow those seasons to begin, too."
What the ADs say
Likewise, some of Oregon's high school athletic directors expressed optimism about the possibility of high school sports returning in February and March.
"I feel pretty good that soccer and cross country both have a solid chance of competing as of right now," said Mountainside High School Athletic Director Bryan Sorenson. "Both sports are considered low- to medium-contact and (compete) outside, so I like their odds."
"I think we will (play)," said Chad Waples, Woodburn School District athletic director. "Obviously, this is my opinion, but I do think we'll have high school sports. … It might not look the same, but I think we'll see stuff. We could play a soccer game right now."
Additionally, Glencoe High School Athletic Director Matt York was equally optimistic, but added that the decision will ultimately be out of their hands.
"I am hopeful that High School Sports will return in February, however, I do not have a crystal ball and cannot predict the nature of COVID-19," York said. "There are a lot of variables that are at play from the County/OHA Guidelines, to OSAA, and our own District. I think the most important factor here is that we keep our students safe, coaches safe, officials safe, event management, etc. Putting on events has a lot of logistics and all that needs to be done safely as well."
Not everyone, however, is quite as upbeat about the chance for competition to resume.
"I think there will be some sports that are able to compete in February, but I believe it will look different depending on which county the schools/districts reside (in)," said Jefferson AD Neil Barrett. "It is hard to determine what and how they will look. The biggest factor will be the rate at which COVID-19 can be contained."
Football, volleyball and water polo
Regarding football, volleyball and water polo, there is less confidence that those sports will get to play in 2021. Football and water polo are classified by the OHA as 'Full-contact sports' — along with rugby, wrestling, cheerleading, basketball, hockey, dance and men's lacrosse — and are currently prohibited by the state. As an indoor activity, volleyball is tied to the governor's County Risk Level Guidance and only allowed in those counties deemed as Lower, Moderate or High Risk.
"My crystal ball for (whether volleyball) will happen is currently not working, (and) football is a complete unknown for me as it is considered high-contact … and currently not allowed by OHA," Sorenson said. "I want to stay optimistic that they can get something in for a season, but time is not our side."
"I think our (other) outdoor sports will return to play in February, (but) I am worried about football as the OHA has it listed as a (full-contact sport), which is prohibited at this time," said Centennial AD Terrance Schloth, also noting the restrictions on "volleyball as the OHA guidelines prohibit indoor sports."
Should water polo — a club sport — be allowed, the Oregon High School Water Polo Committee has scheduled competition to begin March 8 and continue through May 8.
Across the country
• Nationwide, 31 states — with many accommodations to the pandemic — played their fall high school sports seasons as normal, though many saw individual teams' seasons end early because of COVID-19 spikes and others were forced to scrap playoff competition. Four other states were forced to end playoffs early because of surging COVID-19 cases.
• For winter season sports, 34 states have already opened competition and another five are scheduled to begin soon.
After fall sports, spring season sports are scheduled to begin April 12 and continue through May 23 (with practices starting one week earlier), while winter sports are set to kick off May 24 and continue through June 27 (with practices starting one week earlier). Right now, wrestling, basketball and indoor swimming are tied to county-by-county risk levels.
"The shift of wrestling and basketball to the end of the calendar provides the most runway for their prohibition to be lifted by the state," said the Dec. 7 press release from the OSAA. "The OSAA has been given no indication that a change will be made in this designation but remains hopeful that a change could occur prior to Season 4."
— Paul Danzer and Phil Hawkins also contributed to this story.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.