There’s going to be high school football this year in Nebraska.
I can say that with certainty.
When there are 18 counties going into Phase IV reopening as of Saturday — basically a relaxing of most Directed Health Measures — 21 counties without a positive test in 14 days and 36 counties with single-digit COVID-19 cumulative positive tests, there’s going to be high school football and other fall sports. Tell citizens of those communities there won’t be and watch the push back.
Past that, everything is on the table. The pandemic is not leaving. There will be flareups, maybe hot spots.
How will the state’s 17 health departments treat an initial COVID-19 case in a school, sports team or extracurricular activity for the extent of a shutdown? One class or the entire building? The entire team or only those close to the infected person? Will there be consistency across the state within the health departments as to their standards?
The elephant in the room is the forthcoming decision from the Omaha Public Schools on fall sports. It’s a decision that will impact the rest of Class A.
If OPS says no to fall sports, without a countywide health mandate, will the other Douglas County high schools — including multischool districts Millard and Elkhorn — keep going? Or does OPS give cover to other Class A school districts in the metro area — including the three in Sarpy County — and the Lincoln Public Schools to follow suit? Considering many of those districts are switching to the OPS 3/2 plan for reopening in-person learning, that seems possible.
With the 3/2 plan, scheduling could be problematic. Schools may have to determine whether students on their at-home learning days can come to school for practices.
Until we know who’s playing, or maybe knowing when they’re willing to start, Class A football is far more in flux than any other class. It could be that OPS decides to wait several weeks, gauge how its reopening (and that of other schools) is going, then decides to open fall sports if things are going well. It’s taken that approach of letting others go first throughout the reopening of summer activities. It’s one it used before in a time of health emergency — albeit years ago.
Omaha had a polio outbreak in 1937. Kids, that was a serious, crippling disease that left children, adults and a President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, in wheelchairs. The city delayed the start of school, and football wasn’t played until October.
The Nebraska School Activities Association will have to have more contingency plans for Class A — the class with the state’s largest schools — than for any of the other six classes. Jay Bellar, NSAA executive director, already has acknowledged that. Possibilities include playing only district games; making the first two weeks of games optional; taking all teams to the playoffs; or dropping the playoffs and using that four-week period to help teams complete their schedules.
It must be a season of flexibility. There will be COVID cases, and teams anywhere in the state may have to shut down for a period. Bellar said the NSAA will have to work out details for such situations. He’s leaning toward what Iowa has done, that teams will not be charged with a loss or forfeit due to state, county or local health department determinations. A missed game due to COVID-19 would be considered a “no contest” and will not be made up.
Iowa is allowing COVID-related open dates to be filled. NSAA bylaws are more rigid on adding games to schedules, but Bellar isn’t ruling that — or anything else — out.
“It’s going to be hard for us to do a whole lot quickly if we’re going to have to worry about our bylaws being violated every time, because I’m thinking they’re going to be,” he said.
Expect the NSAA to hold firm, as Bellar told me Tuesday, on its transfer eligibility rules unless schools statewide press the matter. Especially if OPS or other large districts aren’t willing to open sports, there will be parents seeking playing opportunities for their children. The adults will have to make legitimate moves, selling and buying a residence or proving they moved for their kids to not have to observe the NSAA’s 90-day sit-out rule. We may be in a national emergency, but those rules were maintained during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. Families had to move for their children to be immediately eligible.
What the NSAA will have to vet closely is attempted move-ins, even from out-of-state, with grandparents or other relatives. Some have gotten through the cracks before and some will again. Would families in California send kids to Nebraska to play a fall football or volleyball season? They’re already calling schools and the NSAA.
The NSAA doesn’t want to lose another sports season and further eat into its cash reserves. In 2018-19, football and volleyball championships produced more than $500,000 in profit for the association. The winter season, with basketball and wrestling, financially is more vital. In 2018-19, those sports produced a profit of more than $1.2 million. That won’t be the case for 2019-20. The COVID-19 outbreak began at the same time as the boys basketball tournament and attendance was limited.
The coming school year is going to take creativity and common sense to keep sports seasons going. Fan attendance may have to be limited to players’ immediate families, as was tried at boys state basketball, at least for a while. That might have to be applied to the schools in the least-affected counties, too. At least let the grandparents have the best parking spots around the eight-man football field.
I’m hopeful for OPS students that there will be a fall season of some kind. Ending summer workouts early may prove to be a prudent step. Waverly volleyball coach Terri Neujahr thought so. She stopped the Vikings’ workouts July 20.
All I know, beyond that we’ll have high school sports in some form in at least some parts of the state this fall, is each week will bring a new twist we haven’t thought about.
Stay with us, and wear a mask.
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