High school football in pandemic: Questions that needed answers

The Dacula football team breaks through their banner as they run onto the field before a game against Lanier Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, at Dacula High School in Dacula.

Credit: Casey Sykes

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The Dacula football team breaks through their banner as they run onto the field before a game against Lanier Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, at Dacula High School in Dacula.

Credit: Casey Sykes

A high school football season that some thought couldn’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic is ready to kick off next week with about 150 games involving 70% of the state’s 425 teams. It comes two weeks later than scheduled, but a full season is planned with championship games for the week after Christmas.

At times this summer, it appeared the season might fall apart. About 75 Georgia teams have delayed or canceled their seasons. One bordering state, North Carolina, postponed fall sports into 2021, as did one third of the country. South Carolina and Florida moved their seasons back, as did Georgia, along with another third of the country. The remaining third has begun on time.

Now, Georgia is about to play. How did it get here? Can the season make it until Christmas? Here are some questions and answers that explore that journey and where it might end:

Q: When did the Georgia High School Association start working on a plan to play football this fall, and what groups were brought in to consult with GHSA officials?

A: On May 6, about five weeks after he canceled spring sports, GHSA executive director Robin Hines made his first public statement indicating he was planning a ’‘measured return to training’' in June, when sports teams traditionally begin voluntary workouts for the coming academic year. Hines has held weekly meetings with his sports medicine advisory council, a group of physicians, athletic trainers, nurses and EMS professionals. Hines frequently sites the guidance of the Department of Public Health and local health agencies, the CDC, superintendents, the governor and the GHSA’s board of trustees.

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Q: What protocols did the GHSA put in place when practice sessions began in June, and were they mandatory?

A: Summer workouts were restricted to conditioning, which meant weightlifting, speed and agility, etc. The sports-specific practices and inter-squad scrimmages that normally are allowed were banned. Workout groups were limited to 20 students and staff. Locker rooms, showers and water stations were not allowed. Equipment was to be disinfected before and between workouts. It was recommended that staff screen for COVID-19 symptoms or contact. Testing was not required. Schools were asked to report athletes and staff who tested positive or were screened out of workouts. The GHSA eased restrictions gradually during the coming weeks and gave schools the green light to return to normal July 27, the scheduled first day for mandatory football practices. Practices in full pads began Aug. 1.

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Q: Did the GHSA have control over the decision to play this fall, or did those decisions come from elsewhere?

A: Yes, the GHSA made the decision, but the GHSA’s power structure is often misunderstood. There is no high school sports czar or office that rules unconditionally. The GHSA’s 450-plus member schools are represented by their 64 region representatives, each with a vote on the GHSA’s executive committee, which makes the rules. Hines, as executive director, enforces those rules. Hines is the GHSA’s single most powerful and persuasive voice. He’s trusted for guidance, and the executive committee typically follows his lead. However, his authority still depends on the backing of the executive committee or the board of trustees. In short, high school sports is moving ahead because the overwhelming majority of member schools and school boards want it. Hines’ job is to guide them in the most expedient way. Also, the GHSA is a voluntary organization. Schools choose to be members. In doing so, they agree to abide by the rules that their selected representatives create and that the GHSA staff enforces. Participation in any sport is optional.

Q: How is it, then, that the GHSA can make rules on situations like the transfer issue, heat and humidity rules, concussion protocols? Wouldn’t schools and their school boards also make those?

A: Decisions about eligibility and safety were based on years of discussion and revision. This pandemic is novel, and school districts have widely differing views about school attendance, athletic participation and other matters complicated by COVID-19. The GHSA leaves decisions to school boards when it’s unrealistic to construct a unified voice for them.

Q: What about the GHSA’s board of trustees? The board voted to postpone the season two weeks. What power does it have?

A: The board of trustees has the same authority as the executive committee and makes decisions when it’s not practical to get the full executive committee together. The board has 13 members, one for each of the eight classifications, a president, a vice president, two at-large members and the GHSA’s executive director. Hines will consult with the board of trustees for all major decisions and seek their backing.

Q: In looking at the timeline since March, was there ever a time when it appeared that opening nights would not happen?

A: Several times. Optimism grew dim July 20 when the board of trustees called a special meeting, but the trustees voted only to delay the season two weeks and to cancel no games, pushing the state finals into Christmas. On July 31, the Georgia Department of Public Health commissioner, Kathleen Toomey, cast doubt when she told the state’s superintendents that she was greatly concerned about the health risks of close-contact extracurricular activities, particularly football. In response, the GHSA six days later called off preseason scrimmages but again canceled no regular-season games. Later in the week, Rockdale County Schools canceled the fall seasons for their three high schools, and Clayton Schools suspended sports competitions indefinitely, but prospects statewide remained hopeful. Then on Tuesday, Aug. 11, the Big Ten and Pac-12 college football conferences canceled their fall seasons, and metro Atlanta superintendents were meeting two days later amid speculation that several large school systems might band together and force the GHSA into another postponement. But only Fulton and DeKalb counties announced further delays, and the rest of the state moved ahead. The next day, Florida voted to start football games in September against the advice of its sports medicine advisory council. On Aug. 17, the SEC announced its new fall schedule and reaffirmed its commitment to fall football. Bordering states Alabama and Tennessee saw their Friday night lights turned on again Aug. 28, helping clear the path for Georgia.

Q: How many teams have delayed or canceled fall sports this year?

A: About 75 of the GHSA’s 425 football-playing schools have delayed their seasons, and eight have canceled their fall schedules entirely. Dozens of others have suspended workouts and restarted them since they began conditioning in June. At any given time, there might be 10-20 teams not practicing because of positive tests or contact. The GHSA reported 866 instances of positive coronavirus tests among student-athletes and staff in all sports during a two-month period this summer.

Q: What does that do to the region alignments and schedules?

A: Two regions in southeast Georgia have only one or two teams fully committed after Savannah’s eight schools chose to play intra-district schedules only. “I guess I can go ahead and get those region championship t-shirts printed,’' joked Southeast Bulloch coach Barrett Davis, whose Region 3-3A team currently has no region opponents. Four teams per region qualify for the playoffs. The GHSA has not made a decision on handling those short-handed regions. Outside of Savannah, all teams that have delayed their seasons have retained their region schedules and hope to qualify for the playoffs in the usual way.

Q: After the games next week, what happens if players on two teams that played against each other develop symptoms? Do both teams quarantine for two weeks?

A: It’s up to the schools. Each school district has its own disease prevention intervention plan as required by the state. Some teams this summer have shut down entirely for two weeks; others have screened out only those players who have tested positive or been in contact. Most schools can be expected to notify opposing schools of potential exposure, but that’s not a state or GHSA requirement.

Q: How much testing is involved at the high school level? Will all teams and players be tested pre-game and post-game?

A: The high schools don’t do COVID-19 testing, and their players will not be tested before and after games. Depending on school board policy, schools typically recommend that symptomatic or exposed students or staff get tested and screen out those with symptoms until they are tested. But the schools themselves, without the resources of college or pro teams, are not testing. The GHSA strongly recommends that schools screen for symptoms and exposure before every workout or game and communicate with opposing teams.

Q: So we’re saying that if an athlete is not sick, but could be carrying the virus, there’s no way for high school programs to know?

A: Correct, unless the athlete gets a test.

Q: Did the GHSA set week-day and game-day protocols? Are they mandatory?

A: The GHSA has issued game-day guidelines for screening athletes. The GHSA strongly recommends temperature checks and other screening before games and face masks or coverings for athletes and staff while traveling to games, entering facilities and on the sidelines.

Q: How can it not be safe for in-person class instruction, but it’s safe for many of the same students to come to campus to practice, and as for now, play games?

A: The GHSA and school administrators would agree this is the hardest question. Their answer is that sports are not mandatory and that the schools have more control over sports teams because they have fewer participants. ’‘It’s totally up to the parent or student-athlete to participate,’' said Jasper Jewell, the athletic director for Atlanta Public Schools. ’‘So if a parent is comfortable enough to have their child participate in athletics, we want to give them every opportunity to be successful.’'

Q: Who decides on whether fans will be allowed at games? Is there a statewide mandate on fan attendance?

A: There’s no statewide mandate. The GHSA leaves that decision to each school district. Many have announced attendance limits. Gwinnett County, for example, will limit spectators to 30% capacity this season. Bibb County is requiring face coverings, but most districts only recommend them. Cashless ticket sales and grab-and-go concessions are other common local rules.

Q: What will it be like for officials?

A: There has been an increasing supply shortage for experienced officials in recent years, and the pandemic exacerbates that situation. Officials have other full-time jobs, so their work is not essential to them, meaning they could take a season off. The average age of officials is about 55, and many have high risk factors as it relates to COVID-19. Todd Downes, president of the Atlanta-based Georgia Football Football Officials Association, expected his membership would be down 25%.

Q. How are other states handling this?

A: Georgia is one of 16 states planning a delayed fall season, according to the National Federation of High School Associations. The NFHS cites 18 states starting on time and 16, plus the District of Columbia, postponing until the winter or spring. Football seasons in Alabama, Florida and Tennessee started last week.

Q. Was there ever a consideration to move football to the second half of the school year?

A: Not seriously. Although a third of the country has done that, the GHSA’s Hines repeatedly has called that an unpopular option for Georgia.

Q: Are there some dissenters? Those who believe the GHSA is moving too fast?

A: Yes. Dr. Richard Rothenberg, a professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State who specializes in infectious diseases and epidemiology, expressed a common opinion in the medical community. “I think it would be a big mistake to play high school football,’' he said in July. “It’s tough to imagine a football game where everyone’s six feet apart and wearing a mask.’' A few football coaches have spoken out. “When it comes to putting their lives in jeopardy just to play a sport, because of politics and economics, I think that is wrong,” Baldwin coach Jesse Hicks said. “I would love to play football, but God has told us that we can’t. There is a pandemic that we don’t have an answer for. It’s too many unknowns.”

Q: How would you rate the chances for completing the season?

A: Impossible to say. The most common answer is to expect disruptions. On Thursday, Colquitt County canceled its first two games because of player quarantines, and Irwin County canceled its Sept. 4 opener with Eagle’s Landing Christian in a game that would have matched the two Class 1A public and private champions. Canceled and postponed games have been an almost daily occurrence leading up to the season. ‘‘The schedule that we have in place now, you can’t write them in stone,’' said Athens Academy athletic director Kevin Petroski, also a member of the GHSA’s board of trustees. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to play every game. We might find out any week that our opponent can’t play and have to find a game. That’s going to be something that’s common around the state.’'

Q: Are there any factors out there that would persuade the GHSA or school boards to pull the plug on the season?

A: If more school districts begin pulling out, or if canceled games become too commonplace, the season could become untenable. The GHSA has made no statement on the number of teams required to keep a season going. Georgia also is not playing in a vacuum. If bordering states begin to shut down, that would be a warning sign. If college football is halted, that could be even more serious. ’‘If the SEC were to shut down, that would put intense pressure on us to stop football,’' GHSA board of trustees president Glenn White has said. “If you think about Georgia, where they have great facilities and resources, and if they say we can’t do it, and we say we can, that would be hard to explain.” Of course, a tragedy, such as the COVID-related death of a student-athlete or staff member, would be catastrophic to high school sports.