As high school administrators and coaches in Nebraska plan for this fall, they do so amid much uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic.
While in-person learning may not be a necessity for schools to resume activities, how social distancing guidelines evolve will dictate what’s possible for football and other sports and activities.
Definitely the directives will be a trickle-down, from Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office to Matt Blomstedt, the state’s commissioner of education, to the Nebraska School Activities Association and its executive director, Jay Bellar.
What Bellar said he’s hearing from school administrators is that they are concerned about when the NSAA activities will start, “but more of them are talking about how we can start school at this point in time.”
The first step in Nebraska toward resuming activities — there were no spring sports — comes June 1. That’s the day the governor said school weight rooms and gyms can open for strength and conditioning work and youth baseball and softball teams can begin practice.
The hope is that, if there’s no spike in COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines can be relaxed further, more summertime activities can be brought on board. Based on the governor’s comments, evaluation by his office of each step may take three weeks after implementation.
The first big date on the NSAA’s 2020-21 calendar is Aug. 10, when team practices can begin in fall sports — football, volleyball, softball, girls golf, boys tennis and girls and boys cross country. Softball and girls golf can begin their seasons on Aug. 20, a week ahead of the other four sports.
Football, of course, drives the conversation. Finances are a reason. Bellevue West football coach Mike Huffman said 80% of the school’s athletic revenue comes from gate receipts and NSAA reimbursements for football.
Bellar said the NSAA staff is contemplating the scenarios for football that could range from having a normal season to not having a season at all. What will have to be done for player safety first and fan access later? What happens if schools can’t open until September or in-person learning is delayed?
Bellar said Thursday night during the governor’s weekly town hall meeting on NET that it’s possible sports could start even if schools open under distance learning.
“If we would open on Sept. 8 and we were able to have our conditioning, which hopefully we can beforehand, that first game wouldn’t be until Sept. 11,” Bellar said. “Then what does that season look like? Is it going to be a shortened season of six or seven games and then the playoffs and stay in our time frame, or are we going to have a regular nine-game season that goes into December with the playoffs?”
He said that a COVID-19 committee will be formed to address those questions and others, including player safety guidelines, and that the national governing body for high school activities will release its reopening guidelines this week.
Not knowing what could be allowed in June, let alone in August, has individual schools trying to keep abreast with developments.
“We’re just playing it by ear and just seeing what everybody else is doing above us who are on the secondary level,” Millard South Athletic Director Steve Throne said. “There’s just been so many moving parts that you want to think about it but you don’t want to concentrate on it because you don’t want to waste a lot of time for something that’s not going to happen, but you want to be prepared.”
Throne said the worst case scenarios for him are not playing at all in the fall or delaying the start of the season.
“You know when you maybe say middle of September for starting, now you’ve lost four weeks of whatever sport might be. Like that would kill softball.”
Norris Athletic Director Mitchell Stine said what happens with strength and conditioning will tell a lot as to what’s possible.
“I don’t have a great pulse on what this fall will look like,’’ he said. “I just know that we’re planning right now for June 1 and looking forward to that, planning a safe environment for kids getting back into shape, and we’ll just see how summer progresses from there.”
Bellevue West’s Huffman, whose team is the returning Class A state champion, said he also wonders about what football will look like this year.
“It’s impossible to keep social distance when you’re playing football. I’m not sure how that’s going to work,’’ he said. “Is the game going to be the game? Will the fans be all spread out?”
In some communities with eight-man or six-man football, they’ve long had the answer to social distancing of fans: It’s vehicles pulled up to the field’s perimeter.
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