There are definitely risks to playing, but most of the U.S. has competed all year.

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Oregon high school wrestlers (including West Linn's Destiny Rodriguez — a 2020 state champion) don't yet know if they'll be allowed to compete in 2021 because the Oregon Health Authority prohibits wrestling as a full-contact sport.Right now, Oregon high school sports are scheduled to begin practice in February, with competition to follow in March.

According to the calendar issued by the Oregon School Activities Association in December, football practice is slated to start Feb. 8, while practices for volleyball, cross country and soccer are due to begin Feb. 22. Competition for all of the traditional fall-season sports is scheduled to kick off the week of March 1-7, while water polo — a club sport — has scheduled games to begin March 8.

While thousands of Oregon athletes, coaches, parents, fans and supporters have expressed excitement over the possible return of high school sports, there are still some huge questions to be answered. First and foremost among them is this — Will it be safe?

Will it be safe?

The answer, in part, depends on your definition of the word "safe" itself.

If high school sports return — and currently, football, volleyball and water polo are still on the Oregon Health Authority's list of prohibited activities — there almost certainly will be some transmission of the COVID-19 virus related to sports. There almost certainly will be some games canceled, some schedules upended, and possibly, some seasons ended early and championships terminated.

That's been true in both Utah and Idaho (two other western states with similar populations to Oregon) — which held fall sports mostly as normal while incorporating many accommodations for COVID-19 — and in states across the country.

"Even with all the precautions in place, there are no guarantees that a COVID-19 outbreak will not occur at your school," said Glencoe Athletic Director Matt York. "Do I think we can incorporate safety measures to play safely? Yes, but it does not guarantee safety from COVID.

"What I can tell you as a parent is, I want my kids to play sports, but I do not want them to contract the virus because I do not know what the impact will be on their health. We know the spectrum of the possible health effects, (but) what we do not know is how that would affect any of my three boys individually. I suppose I want the best of both worlds, but I also know that may be unrealistic."

"I believe we can return to action safely, but some sports may have to wait until we are confident in creating such an environment," said Newberg AD Tim Burke. "We all want to get back to the action, but trusting in the medical and scientific experts must be the foundation of what we do, when we do it and how we do it." "This is a tough question and one that should probably be left with medical professionals," said Jefferson AD Neil Barrett. "The safety of our student-athletes and community are of utmost importance and we can't let our desire to be together supersede our responsibility to keep people safe and healthy."

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - If high school soccer is allowed to return to action in March, the gap between OSAA-sanctioned contests in the sport will measure more than 15 months.

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, 36 states have already opened competition and another five are scheduled to begin soon.

The numbers and the studies

That said, it is unclear whether the rate of COVID-19 transmission related to sports is greater than in the 14-18 age group in general. As of Wednesday, Jan. 20, the Oregon Health Authority reports the following for the 10-19 age group (which includes 496,757 Oregonians): 14,387 COVID-19 cases; a case rate of 2,896.2 per 100,000; 68% of those cases (9,849) did not result in hospitalization; and zero deaths.

Thus far, studies about transmission rates and outcomes related to high school sports have been few and far between, and mixed in their findings. A widely-shared study of high school sports in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health showed virtually no increase in COVID-19 infections among athletes, and of the infections reported, most of those came from household contacts rather than sports.

Another report on youth soccer showed that players had a lower case rate and incidence rate than the national rate for children in the United States and the general population from counties in which soccer clubs were based where data was available.

However, the Wisconsin study has been viewed skeptically by some experts, who noted that it had not been peer-reviewed (nor has the study on youth soccer players) and was based on self-reported data. Other studies in Tennessee and Minnesota have shown worrisome rates of transmission related to high school sports.

Ready to play — maybe

With Oregon's overall case rates (48th) and death rates (47th) consistently among the best in America, others are convinced that high school sports can indeed return safely.

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON SCHOOL ACTIVITIES ASSOCIATION - OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber"We believe that sports can be played safely," said Peter Weber, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association. "When mitigation procedures and protocols are followed, indications are that sports are not the driving factor for COVID-19."

"Our coaches have all done their due diligence in regards to documentation of the symptom checklist, temperature checks, they're more familiar with sanitation procedures and the kids are going to be masked at all times," said Hillsboro Athletic Director Steve Drake. "We've only had two positive cases amongst our training sessions in recent months, and both stemmed not from the workouts but from home. I feel that as long as we're doing the right things, and the kids are doing the right things at home and being honest with us about their symptom checklist and behaviors, I'm confident we can go ahead and have a safe competitive environment."

"We believe that sports can be played safely," said Chad Waples, Woodburn School District athletic director. "When mitigation procedures and protocols are followed, indications are that sports are not the driving factor for COVID-19."

353 days off

If they're right, Oregon high school sports — at least soccer and cross country — may return to competition for the first time since March 13 of 2020. If games begin on March 1, it will have been 353 days (11 months and 16 days) since the last OSAA-sanctioned competition.

Right now, the 2021 calendar will begin with six weeks of fall-season sports that stretch from March 1 to April 11. That will be followed by six weeks of spring season sports (including baseball, softball, track and field, tennis, golf and lacrosse — a club sport) with competition set for April 12 to May 23. And finally, the school year will end with six weeks of winter season sports (including basketball, swimming and wrestling) with competition set for May 24 to June 26.

Likewise, activities may make their return in coming months, too, with speech, solo music, dance/drill, cheerleading, choir and band/orchestra all scheduled for competition between April 5 to May 30.

Wade Evanson, Ryan Clarke and Paul Danzer also contributed to this story.

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