Given the scope and scale of the global pandemic, you might think that changes in high school sports schedules made for safety reasons qualify as minor inconveniences. But think again. In recent days, rallies have taken place across the state not to protest police violence or to stress that Black lives matter, but to argue that moving high school football from autumn 2020 to spring 2021 is an affront to all that is good and great in Colorado life.
Now the demonstrators have gotten their way, more or less. On September 16, mere days after stating that it would hold its ground, the board of directors for the Colorado High School Activities Association, under pressure from parents, football fans and Governor Jared Polis, reversed field, announcing that it "will provide member schools with the local option to play field hockey, football and sideline spirit during the fall (Season A) season."
At the same time, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has issued guidelines for sports activities in the coming weeks that are intended to prevent gridiron glory from scoring an infection lollapalooza.
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Since in-person instruction returned for the 2020-2021 academic year, many Colorado schools have had to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, including Westminster High School, which was just declared an outbreak site by the CDPHE, and Cherry Creek High School, where 1,700 students have returned to remote learning because of cases associated with parties.
Nonetheless, the spread of the virus is relatively low in many counties across the state, as depicted in a color-coded map produced by the CDPHE. Here's the version updated for today, September 17:
Parents and students living in areas shaded green or blue, where public-health statistics are promising, argue that they shouldn't suffer the loss of fall football — the driving force behind the protests — just because other counties have higher case counts of the novel coronavirus. On numerous occasions, Polis has made it clear that he's sympathetic to this point of view.
In contrast, the CHSAA board has shown a marked preference for caution. The organization's August 4 announcement of its sports calendar for the year included this passage: "Due to the restrictive nature of the current state guidelines, and the ability to follow Colorado Department of Education requirements, all contact sports have been moved to a season which will commence later in the calendar, and allow for playoffs and culminating events without creating new conflicts."
On September 9, despite the hue and cry from protesters, the directors determined that they'd stick with the previously announced schedule, prompting a response from Polis that offered grudging support.
"I have said from the beginning that it will take all of us — people at home, local communities, governments, businesses, and organizations working together — to crush the spread of this virus," Polis wrote in a statement. "Our administration was looking forward to allowing more student-athletes to begin their season this Fall, but if the CHSAA board unanimously agrees that they should delay their season until the Spring in an effort to ensure that they are better prepared to protect the safety of student-athletes then our administration fully respects that decision. The important thing is that every CHSAA sanctioned athletic team sport will occur this school year giving kids the opportunity to learn important skills by participating in team sports."
Nonetheless, Polis continued to not-so-subtly nudge the board to shift course by encouraging variances that allow play.
And CHSAA finally took the hint. In its missive to schools noting that they now have the local option to schedule games, it points out that the new rules "allow for 50 players, per sideline, to be on the field during a football game. In field hockey, the variance allows for 25 players per sideline, per game. Previously, these guidelines were 25 players, total."
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The CDPHE elaborated on the rules of a game in its September 16 letter to CHSAA, including the following requirements:
• All participants, including athletes, coaches, match officials, staff, and others, must wear masks while not actively playing or performing.
• All participants, including athletes, coaches, match officials, staff, and others, must be six feet apart from non-household members on the sidelines or while not in active play.
• All participants, including athletes, coaches, match officials, staff, and others, must stay in their designated areas off the field of play, and may not go into spectator areas.
• All participants, including athletes, coaches, match officials, staff, and others must wear masks and observe social distancing during transportation.
• Roster limitations established by CHSAA must not be exceeded.
• Cheer/Dance participants must follow the requirements laid out in other guidelines for performers and be at least 25 feet away from spectators and players at all times.
• Athletic teams will be required to report and respond to cases and outbreaks under the same guidelines as schools.
Expect a flood of schools to request variances to compete — and health officials to closely scrutinize the gatherings in an effort to prevent them from sparking COVID-19 spikes that could penalize everyone.
Click to read the complete Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's September 16 CHSAA letter.