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The state has higher COVID-19 numbers than Oregon, but still managed to play safely

*This story has been updated

PMG PHOTOS: MILES VANCE - While Oregon sports are scheduled to return from a nine-month hiatus in January — beginning with winter season sports, followed by fall and spring — Idaho high schools are just completing their 2020 fall season and preparing for winter sports as scheduled.You can't hear it from home, but if you drive 400+ miles east on a Friday night, you might hear the sound of football fans cheering under the Friday night lights.

While high school sports in Oregon have been stalled by restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic for nine months, that's not the case in Idaho, Oregon's nearest neighbor to the east.

No indeed. Idaho forged ahead with high school sports as scheduled — with many pandemic-related accommodations — and thus far, have played regular seasons, moved into district and state competitions, and crowned champions in cross country, volleyball and soccer. With the exception of Boise — which shut down sports Thursday, Nov. 12, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases — Idaho's high school football teams are currently in the midst of their state playoffs.

Nationally, 35 states have played fall sports as originally scheduled, or with minimal delays, as reported by MaxPreps.com.

A couple basic goals

"We started with a couple basic goals. One was how to get kids playing safely — that was the main focus for everything," said Mike Federico, assistant director with the Idaho High School Activities Association. "(State championship) events and finances were way down the line — it was how to get kids playing safe, how to keep our officials safe and how to keep our coaches safe. We said 'If we can't do that, we can't play,' and everybody pretty much agreed."

For Oregon high school athletes, parents, coaches, fans and administrators, the good news is this — Idaho has shown that high school sports can be played, and played safely.

Federico, a former high school athletic director who has worked at the IHSAA for four years, said that while several Idaho high school teams have been impacted by COVID-19, to his knowledge, no student-athletes have died and none have suffered serious consequences from hospitalization.

"They don't have to report those things to our office, but no, we haven't heard that yet," he said. "We haven't had that happen."

"We've learned that whatever we plan has to be able to be adaptive. We've got to change with what's going on because the virus doesn't care what our plans are."

Mike Federico, assistant director with the Idaho High School Activities Association

Spiking case numbers

That doesn't mean there aren't risks.

Oregon (population 4.3 million) has seen a spike in its COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, and as of Sunday, Nov. 8, the state ranks 40th nationally in total cases (50,448), 36th in deaths (730), 47th in cases per million (11,961) and 47th in deaths per million (173).

Likewise, Idaho (population 1.75 million) has also seen a spike in its COVID-19 cases over the past three weeks. As of Sunday, Nov. 8, Idaho ranks 36th in total cases (72,961), 39th in deaths (686), 10th in cases per million (40,827) and 38th in deaths per million (384).

While Idaho's COVID-19 numbers are worse than Oregon's on a per capita basis in every category, the IHSAA figured out ways for the Gem State's high school athletes to return to competition this fall after — like Oregon — losing the entire 2020 spring season to the pandemic.

The return to competition hasn't been without challenges. Over the course of the fall season, many Idaho high school sports teams — there are more than 300 high schools in the state and thousands of varsity teams — felt the impact of COVID-19. A few had their seasons end early, several saw contests postponed or cancelled, and many had to put athletes into quarantine after positive tests during the season.

Some of Idaho's winter season leagues have also been forced to postpone the start to their 2020-21 seasons by a week.

The keys to success

Federico said that the key pieces to Idaho's success in the 2020 fall season were: its use of steering committees that designed safety procedures and championship guidelines for each sport; the way the IHSAA allowed different districts (and individual schools) to react to circumstances on the ground; and empowering the state's coaches and athletes to help ensure their own safety.

"We have steering committees for each sport that basically gave the directive that local districts were in charge of their play and how they're handling the pandemic. It wasn't going to be a statewide deal," he said. "We basically (said) 'Everything's on the table — for the regular season, the postseason, everything.' Let's discuss it.

"I think the most impactful thing is that we got the coaches to buy in — they have the most influence over kids, parents and all that stuff. We just basically said, 'You've got to understand that all the basics of social distancing and wearing masks and all those kind of things are going to make a difference in your season, whether you get to complete the season.' I think it was impactful for them to (remember) what happened last spring."

Sport-by-sport plans

The IHSAA and its steering committees created a 52-page document (Guidance for opening up high school athletics and activities) that details on a sport-by sport basis how the state's athletes could safely return to the fields, courts and courses for the fall season.

While imperfect, Idaho's plans have worked.

"We really never got to a point where, statewide, there was any mandated shutdown or anything of that nature," Federico said. "If you take into account the entire state, it's mostly been pretty normal."

A few Idaho volleyball teams saw their seasons stopped about two-thirds of the way through the year, Federico said, while another team that qualified for the state tournament was unable to compete due to a COVID-19 outbreak. But those proved to be the exceptions to the rule.

Federico said that some of the state's larger metropolitan areas — including Boise, Meridian and Nampa — were harder hit by the pandemic than more rural areas, "but for the most part, people got in their games."

Flexibility is everything

Over the course of the 2020 fall season, Federico said the biggest lesson the IHSAA learned was this — flexibility is everything.

"We've learned that whatever we plan has to be able to be adaptive. We've got to change with what's going on because the virus doesn't care what our plans are," Federico said. "We have to be able to adapt and change and be flexible. … I think flexibility is the main thing. What we've always done is not the way we're doing them now. That's for sure."

*This story was updated with news that Boise School District suspended high school sports Thursday, Nov. 12, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.


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