Coronavirus: FHSAA panel charts course for high school sports return
Scheduling shakeups and championship changes are on the table as Florida's high schools race against time — and against the coronavirus — to safely return to athletics for the fall.
On July 27 — only 34 days away — the Florida High School Athletic Association plans to kick off its fall sports calendar.
Getting there is the tough part.
The FHSAA hinted at potential changes to its championship plans during a Tuesday meeting of its fall sports task force, which is aiming to chart a course toward a safe reopening in time for competition in August.
Executive director George Tomyn said the state is planning to begin fall sports as originally scheduled, with activities to begin on July 27 — even as the state's COVID-19 count surpasses 100,000.
Now, the association faces a challenge: how to begin competition if some counties are suffering from large-scale outbreaks while others remain largely untouched, all while keeping schools informed of its plans.
And how to finish it. Plans for the season-ending state championships, Tomyn said, could be up in the air.
"I'm not so sure that we're going to be able to have that this year in the traditional format as in the past," Tomyn said.
The task force conducted the meeting by way of online platform Zoom, addressing an array of logistical and medical challenges but reaching few concrete answers as the discrepancy between hard-hit South Florida and the less-impacted North Florida raised issues of competitive equity and safety.
"Every community's dimmer switch is going to move at a different pace," said Jacob Oliva, chancellor of the Florida Department of Education's Division of Public Schools.
Broward County Athletic Association director Rocky Gillis said beginning in July may be difficult for his district, which has suffered more than 11,000 infections.
Pam Romero, athletic director at Palm Beach County, said her district has had to push back the start of workouts until later in July. She said those delays might prevent programs there from returning to full competition before Labor Day.
Yet even that start date, some acknowledged, could be too optimistic for some regions.
"Who's to say we'll be able to start after Labor Day?" said John Gerdes, athletic director at Clearwater Central Catholic. "We just simply don't know."
By contrast, most schools in Northeast Florida have been conducting workouts for weeks. Nassau County began voluntary workouts on June 1, while public schools in Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties started last week.
Under health guidelines that vary from county to county, athletes are required to go through temperature checks and train in smaller groups to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.
But these restrictions haven't entirely squashed concerns in Northeast Florida, amid rising coronavirus tallies in every Jacksonville-area county.
On Monday, St. Augustine High School suspended its workouts for basketball after family members of a player tested positive for COVID-19, thus triggering a quarantine.
John Scarpino of the Mid-Coast Athletic Association also urged the FHSAA to adopt strong protocols to protect officials, citing their average age of 53.
Tomyn said the association had no plans to require masks, although Duval County has instructed students and coaches to wear them when entering or exiting training.
Tomyn said the FHSAA would be flexible in dealing with scheduling changes.
"We're not going to hold your feet to the fire... we're going to work with you," he said.
Tomyn said that of the six fall sports, the FHSAA expects few adjustments for bowling, cross country, golf or swimming. But volleyball, because of close proximity within a gym, and especially football bring complications.
For now, Tomyn said, the association doesn't have a formal Plan B for starting on an alternate date. He also said there are no plans to shift any fall sports to a later time in the year, saying the FHSAA plans on "staying the course."
Duval County athletic director Tammie Talley called for the FHSAA to keep communicating with athletic directors, and suggested the association may wish to suggest "different sets of models for everybody across the state of Florida to look at and see what works for them."
Also of concern: The FHSAA's ranking system, used for the first time last year to determine at-large playoff berths in several team sports. Gillis suggested that the association may have to revisit those rankings in case the virus disrupts teams' schedules.
The task force passed a motion from Lauren Otero, athletic director at Tampa Plant, to send a survey to FHSAA membership ahead of the body’s next meeting on July 1. With fewer than five weeks remaining before the planned start, time is running short.
The ticking clock could also scramble plans for the end to the fall seasons, at a time when some epidemiologists have suggested that the coronavirus could enter a second wave.
Talley suggested that the FHSAA could hold regional or sectional championships in the event that the virus makes a conventional state series impractical or unsafe.
"The more flexibility we can allow ourselves," Gerdes said, "the better.