*This story has been updated
The 2020 fall high school sports season is now part of the history books in the state of Utah.
Utah — located 700-plus miles and two states to the southeast of Oregon — was the first state in the country to open high school football this fall, kicking off back on Aug. 13 when the Davis Darts beat the Herriman Mustangs 24-20. Utah then closed out fall play with football state championship games on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21.
Oregon, meanwhile, chose to move all of its sports for the 2020-21 school year into 2021.
Over the past three months, Utah high school teams got after it in thousands upon thousands of contests in football, volleyball, girls soccer, cross country and girls tennis. Along the way, Utah's high school teams played through regular seasons and district competitions, then through state playoffs that led to a whole new batch of state champions.
"Our member schools … took the risk mitigation protocols very seriously and that has afforded us the opportunity to be able to give away our state championships ... and that's a positive. There's no doubt about that," said Jon Oglesby, assistant director at the Utah High School Activities Association. "We're very excited that we've been able to do that."
Closer to home, the Oregon School Activities Association has taken note, closely following the procedures and protocols, successes and failures of Utah and other western states.
"In my conversations with (high school athletic associations in other western) states, I think the key thing that keeps coming through for me — and these states are doing a good job — is having them stick to the protocols that are put in place," said OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber, noting that he participates in a weekly conference call with 11 other western state directors. "There's a reason (the protocols are) put in place. Each of those states has had cancelations and situations where students have been quarantined and things like that, but what hasn't been shown — at least to this point in the states that we've talked to here — are the real significant outbreaks of huge numbers."
Nationally, 35 states have played fall sports as originally scheduled, or with minimal delays, as reported by MaxPreps.com.
What happens with Oregon high school sports in the coming months, however, remains anyone's guess.
"The honest answer is we don't know," Weber said. "Basically, all of the direction we're taking is coming from governor's office and the (Oregon) Health Authority, just like the schools are taking their direction from the Department of Ed. They're dictating what is allowed and what's not allowed in terms of both high school sports, K-12, and also recreational and youth sports. Those are things that we're bound to follow."
Why Utah played
Looking back to the start of Utah's fall sports season, Oglesby — a former college coach — said that the UHSAA and its member schools (more than 400 total) worked together to formulate sport-by-sport plans they felt would allow athletes to return to competition safely.
"People … largely felt that as we were going into the fall, we were in a good position to be able to continue," Oglesby said. "The biggest thing is we were going back to school, and that's always been the barometer for us — if it's safe enough for in-person school, it's safe enough to consider having high school activities."
Oglesby, who has worked at the UHSAA for four years, said that while several Utah high school teams were impacted by COVID-19, to his knowledge no student-athletes have died and none have suffered serious consequences from hospitalization.
"I think our state was very competent in its COVID-19 mitigation plans. We felt confident about our case numbers at that point," he said. "We also felt very confident about some other statistics overall in our state, in terms of the infection rate and the fatality rate."
"Our state is pretty innovative, and kind of has the mentality of finding ways to make it work, instead of finding ways to not make it work," said Brenan Jackson, director of football at the UHSAA, in an interview with centralmaine.com in September. "We just moved forward in finding ways to make it happen, instead of finding excuses not to."
From his perspective, Weber said he's impressed with what he's seen from the other states that chose to play fall high school sports in 2020. He noted that being able to react quickly to changes on the ground was key to keeping competition on track.
"Certainly, we've learned over the last nine months that flexibility is important," Weber said. "Many of them had their playoff plans set into place and their regular seasons, but they had to make adjustments. … Schools are adapting, obviously, trying to keep safety at the forefront of everything, while at the same time understanding it's important to provide those opportunities."
Spiking case numbers
As with all activities in the COVID-19 era, there are risks to playing high school sports.
Oregon (population 3.3 million) has seen a spike in its COVID-19 cases over the past month, and as of Monday, Dec. 7, the state ranked 38th nationally in total cases (89,838), 40th in deaths (1,123), 47th in cases per million (21,300) and 47th in deaths per million (266).
Likewise, Utah (population 1.75 million) has also seen a spike in its COVID-19 cases over the past four weeks. As of Friday, Utah ranked 27th in total cases (228,129), 41st in deaths (1,025), sixth in cases per million (71,158) and 46th in deaths per million (320).
While Utah's COVID-19 numbers are worse than Oregon's on a per capita basis in every category, the UHSAA figured out ways for the Beehive State's high school athletes to return to competition this fall after — like Oregon — losing the entire 2020 spring season to the pandemic.
Most recently, the UHSAA decided to delay the start of winter-season sports in response to the latest uptick in COVID-19 numbers.
"With the rising case numbers, we've had to delay the start of winter season to come up with some additional protocols," Oglesby said, also noting that the UHSAA has changed some of its game site locations. "But I think the number one goal, like all state association goals, is can we proceed if it's safe? Our government leaders are excited about that and believe we've made the necessary changes in their eyes."
The Utah Department of Health reports that young people ages 15 to 24 make up 25% of all cases in Utah and have the highest case rate per 100,000 of any age group (10,610.3).
Utah's Department of Health doesn't require masks on players during practices or games, and while it has advised schools to switch to remote learning when schools reach 15 cases or more, the New York Times found in October that many schools in Utah aren't following those standards.
In response to the latest spike in COVID-19 case numbers, dozens of Utah's high schools chose to close their doors for two weeks in late November. Before high school sports can resume, the Utah Health Department requires that each participant:
• Has been tested for COVID-19 at least once every 14 days. The test must be an approved test for COVID-19 by the United States Food and Drug Administration (must be a PCR or antigen test, not an antibody test).
• Who tested positive for COVID-19 has completed their isolation period required in the COVID-19 School Manual.
• Who were exposed to COVID-19 has completed their quarantine period required in the COVID-19 School Manual.
'Some pretty big adjustments'
None of it, however, has been easy. Over the course of the fall season, many Utah high school sports teams felt the impact of COVID-19. Football — the lone high-contact sport in the fall — was hit the hardest, losing six games in the first week of October, seeing 10 canceled in Week 8 and many others postponed, moved or rescheduled.
"With football, we've had to make some pretty big adjustments with the sharply rising case counts in our state," Oglesby said. "We certainly had a number of cancellations, specifically in our higher contact sports ... but overall, I think it's been a positive. We've been very fortunate that our football season has gone as well as it has with a few cancellations."
"When it became apparent there were a number of positive cases showing up in high school-age kids, in order to continue with football playoff games, all remaining high school football teams in the state playoffs — approximately 1,500 high school athletes — were tested for COVID-19," said Charla Haley, public information officer and certified records officer for the Utah Department of Health. "What we found is out of 2,660 tests performed over two weeks, we found 87 positives for a percent positivity of 3.2%."
The keys to success
Now, with the late-November football state championships in the rearview mirror, the UHSAA has learned a lot about how to conduct sports in the midst of a global pandemic.
Along the way, Oglesby said, the UHSAA has worked closely with state government and continually collected new data and adapted to changing conditions.
"The one thing about our office is it's specifically our policy-making boards … that make decisions as they're gathering information," he said. "They're gathering information from their constituents, we're getting information from our governor's office, state health personnel and such. And so when you put all that information together, you're able to pretty quickly sift through it and make a determination on what's the best decision. … I think that's allowed us to really not get too polarized one way or another, but to look at the information that's out there and then make the most practical decision based upon the information that we're getting from very informed people."
Beyond that, the most important lesson the UHSAA and Utah's high school athletes and coaches have learned is this — you can never let your guard down.
"I don't know that we ever did that and I don't know that our member schools ever did that," Oglesby said. "It's been a constant reminder that every day, you're on the clock, you're on stage, and you have to perform in order to keep the seasons going. And I think our member schools have done a tremendous job with that. I think they've been very diligent about pushing forward through all that adversity."
Looking ahead, Weber and thousands of Oregon athletes, coaches, parents, fans and supporters are hopeful for a return to competition sometime in 2021. Last week, the OSAA postponed the start of competition until February.
"I think that's critical … (for athletes to) at least have those opportunities," Weber said. "I think that's really important for schools, and I think they're doing a good job of trying to find ways to allow those things to happen safely and provide those engagement opportunities."
*This story was updated with information about COVID-19 case rates among residents ages 17-24, news that many high schools chose to close for two weeks in late November.
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.