What's going on? Oregon High school sports remain in limbo
It's been roughly nine months since the Oregon School Activities Association halted competition in the middle of the 2020 boys and girls state basketball championships, nipped spring seasons in the bud, and put high school athletics in a perpetual holding pattern in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since that day, state title dreams ended, many athletic careers did too, and questions persist as to when Oregon's high school athletes will again take to the field of play.
In September, talk was about a January start. But as of last week, the target has again been moved, this time aiming for a March 1 kickoff. That long-awaited resumption of the sports calendar — if it happens — would begin with what are traditionally fall sports, including football, cross country, soccer and volleyball; moving next to the spring sports of baseball, softball, golf, tennis, and track and field; then finishing with what are usually winter events, like basketball, swimming and wrestling.
But with 35 of the country's 50 states still competing at the high school level, and neighboring states such as Idaho, Montana, Utah and Arizona able to complete their football seasons without a hitch, many kids, parents and coaches are impatient for a return to play sooner rather than later.
'Think about what
we're truly doing'
"It's proven that when kids are playing sports, they're more into what's going on in school," said Banks High School's head football coach, Cole Linehan. "Now that we don't have sports, there's not that accountability. Every week we did grade checks and I'd sit at a table with every kid, and with their grades in front of me, and we'd make sure they had their stuff in order. Now, I wouldn't say we've lost them, but it's harder to keep track of them and it's really sad to see."
Linehan made it clear that he isn't dismissing the threat of COVID-19, which has caused in-person schooling and school sports alike to grind to a halt in Oregon since March.
Linehan said he understands the realities of the virus and takes it seriously, but he also recognizes both the short- and long-term toll being taken on kids from sitting idle at home. He believes it's important to do everything in their ability to get students back in the classroom, and athletes back on the field, as soon as possible.
"COVID is a very serious thing, and people are dying, and we have to take that into consideration," he said. "But we also have to look at what states and schools around us are doing and think about what we're truly doing for the sake of these kids."
One of those states, Idaho, recently finished its fall sports season. The Gem State crowned champions in football, boys and girls soccer, volleyball and cross country. Winter sports, including basketball, are underway.
Idaho High School Activities Association assistant director Mike Federico said Idaho has prioritized making a safe environment for student athletes. State athletic officials also committed early on to making sure kids could play, if it was at all possible.
"We started with a couple basic goals. One was how to get kids playing safely — that was the main focus for everything," Federico said. "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."
In Oregon, OSAA executive director Peter Weber pushes back on any suggestion his organization hasn't done its best to get kids back on the field.
The political realities are different: While Idaho's governor, Brad Little, has gone further than many "red-state" governors in imposing restrictions to try to combat the coronavirus, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has spearheaded among the strictest coronavirus responses in the country. And while Oregon has maintained a much lower rate of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 than its neighbor to the east, it has also sacrificed nearly two full semesters of in-person learning and high school athletics.
"I think everybody would agree it's important to get kids participating both physically and mentally, and we want to try and do that as soon as we can, provided we can do it safely," Weber said. "I talk to directors throughout the 11 Western states, and we get that in 35 states they're playing sports and Oregon hasn't, but we're working within the parameters set by the governor's office. Just like any other business, those aren't options — they're requirements."
a moving target
The OSAA's most recent announcement on Dec. 7 called for football practices to begin Feb. 8, with competition to start March 1. Other traditional fall sports would begin practice a little later, on Feb. 22.
Those plans, however, are contingent upon a significant decrease in COVID-19 numbers, which have grown even in health-conscious Oregon — and, at least in the case of football, a de-escalation of the state's take on "full-contact sports," which at present are not allowed in counties under "extreme risk" of viral spread. That category includes Washington and Columbia counties, along with the rest of the greater Portland metro area. Indoor sports like volleyball are also off-limits for now.
"We were getting ready three weeks ago to come into the building and do our first building stuff, but the numbers spiked again, and now it's against regulation to have kids in your gym," said Doug Thompson, athletic director at Forest Grove High School. "Because of that, I'm concerned that if we're still at the 'extreme' level, volleyball won't be able to get in the gym by February 22."
The Forest Grove Vikings, Thompson said, have taken a more conservative approach to activities than some other schools, choosing to err on the side of caution.
"We could probably do more sharing of equipment and stuff — we just haven't," he said. "We think being safer now is better off in the long run."
Forest Grove teams have mostly been doing conditioning work since the beginning of the school year, with limited individual ball work in the case of sports like soccer and volleyball. Much of that work is being done on the turf field at Dick Hendricks Memorial Stadium, with just 40 kids working at a time, in cohorts of 10, in separate corners of the field with separate arrival and departure times. Each cohort typically works with a singular coach, and restrooms at the facility are cleaned between sessions.
To this point, Thompson said Forest Grove High's safe and conservative approach has paid dividends, with no cases resulting from any of the school's workouts that he knows of. But frustration is mounting from kids and parents itching to get back to the competitive arena, and Thompson understands that frustration.
"Of course, I've had some families that say, 'Let's go, let's play, I don't know what we're doing,' and I understand those frustrations," Thompson said. "But as far as what we're doing and offering kids, it's been real positive. They want the opportunity to compete, and so do we, but the biggest thing is we've got to get these numbers down so the kids can play and the fans will be able to watch."
At Banks High School, Linehan said that prior to the "freeze," his football team was able to get together a few times per week, with everyone outdoors and wearing masks.
Linehan said the latest OSAA plan gives the Banks Braves hope for an upcoming season, but he'd like to feel even better about something that he feels desperately needs to happen.
"Let's look at what's best for these kids and not just say no to them without looking at the data we now have," Linehan said. "Other states have gone through seasons, so let's see what they've done and get these kids back on the field and back in school, and not just looking at a computer screen, hoping they're listening."
Idaho's Federico said that the key pieces to Idaho's success in holding an on-time fall sports season were by setting up steering committees that designed safety procedures and championship guidelines for each sport, allowing individual schools to react to circumstances on the ground, and empowering the state's coaches and athletes to help ensure their own safety.
"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," Federico said. "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."
Linehan wants to make some new memories for his athletes, too.
"I can't tell you how bad I feel for this senior class," he said. "They've worked so hard, and I just can't tell them if and when we're going to play, and I don't want to be the one that has to tell them they can't."
Miles Vance contributed
to this report.
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