Every aspect of the upcoming Arizona 2020 prep football season is considered tentative as the spread of COVID-19 will ultimately determine where, when and by whom prep football will be played.
Ideas never seriously considered in previous years will be on the table --- playing a five- or six-game schedules and starting the season a few weeks or a month later than the current Aug. 21 date are options being considered.
The variance in spread of the virus could cause the Arizona Interscholastic Association to change team’s schedules to minimize travel, officials there say.
The AIA executive board will make the decisions, but the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee figures to be a driver of that policy. Dr. Kristina Wilson, who specializes orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, is one member of the 18-person committee.
She said teams may have to revamp their schedules to play nearby schools with a similar level of community spread but at a different classification for football. Ms. Wilson said if the committee recommends schedule changes, roster size, skill level and player safety concerns would be taken into account.
“At the point you’re mixing communities, you’re creating an entry point,” she pointed out. “[But the committee] would not recommend having teams of significantly different size or skill-level play each other just to prevent mixing communities over concerns of COVID-19.”
This is Part 1 of a two-part series on how COVID-19 may affect this high school football season. Look for part 2 --- which will focus on fans, bands, cheer, team bus travel and other peripheral spects of the sport --- in early July.
She said the committee can recommend playing as many games as possible in a nearby community — a strategy recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but all schedule changes are in the hands of the AIA executive board.
"Yes, a school can opt to play a neighborhood opponent up or down two classifications if they want to and save on travel or play someone they know have gone through the same protocols in combating the virus. It’s part of their freedom game portion of the schedule," stated AIA sports information coordinator Seth Polansky in an email. "The schools would have to inform their conference committees. At this point with the schedules already made it could create a ripple effect down line that would alter the schedules for multiple schools. But this situation is too speculative to properly address."
Each of the major hospital systems in the Valley is represented on the advisory committee. And, multiple disciplines are on the panel. On May 28, the executive board endorsed a set of recommended “return to play” guidelines produced by the committee.
Ms. Wilson said much of the Arizona template was derived from the CDC and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee as well as the National Federations of State High School Associations, which is the regulatory body of high school sports.
She said NFHS released their return-to-sport document a couple of days before Arizona.
Teams across Arizona are back in weight rooms and doing some outdoor conditioning drills. All of them look different, with two kids to a station, social distancing outdoors and limits to how many players can take part in these sessions at one time.
Today, coaches are aware plans can change quickly and drastically during the unfolding pandemic.
“There’s a plan. It’s probably going to change a lot. We’re going to go one week at a time. We’re not going to panic and create something if it’s not going to come to fruition,” Willow Canyon coach Justin Stangler said.
While the return-to-play guidelines break the offseason for all sports into four phases --- gradually ramping up the amount of players and coaches who can participate at once while maintaining regular temperature checks among other cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
In phase three, public training facilities can reopen with normal group sizes and all sports may resume usual activities. But the document --- intentionally, officials say --- does not list a specific set of conditions that would allow for games to start.
“We intentionally left that part out of a return-to activity. We wanted to be on the front lines of getting people back to activity safely,” Ms. Wilson said. “We left that off because so much has changed in the last two months."
Dr. Javier Cardenas, a neurologist at the Barrow Neurological Institute, is another member of the sports advisory committee. Mr. Cardenas also is on the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee.
He said the committee guidelines are designed to provide a framework for sports to come back and guidelines for how to do so, without pinning Arizona’s school districts to an absolute set of dates.
“One of the hallmarks of our educational programming is [the] empowerment of the athlete,” Mr. Cardenas said. “We do not want to put all of the onus on them enough to empower their choices.”
And, as the world learns almost every week, many gray areas remain with respect to the coronavirus and how it is spread. On June 8, the World Health Organization released a report stating that asymptomatic spread can occur, but it is “very rare.”
Preliminary evidence from early COVID-19 outbreaks indicated the virus could spread from person-to-person contact, even if the carrier didn’t have symptoms. The new findings further assuage an early concern about playing football during coronavirus --- that an asymptomatic teen athlete could spread the virus to older family members or peers at school.
Ms. Wilson said these findings will not have an effect on AIA guidelines.
“The AIA guidelines focus on prevention of spreading disease through teaching healthy habits and screening players, coaches, and staff for signs and symptoms of illness and monitoring temperatures prior to every practice or athletic event. The most important message in the AIA guidelines to athletes, families, coaches, and athletic staff to keep everyone as healthy as possible is to know the signs of symptoms of COVID-19 illness and to not participate in athletic events when they or someone at home does not feel well even when they fell “well enough” to go to practice,”
--- Dr. Kristina Wilson
“They should stay home until they have been evaluated by a health care professional and determined to not have COVID or another illness that may put their teammates or coaches at risk of becoming sick.”
Owing to the sheer numbers of high school football players in Arizona --- and a wide disparity in money and healthcare resources --- local high school officials say they will not be able to test football players as regularly as major college or NFL teams.
“The outdoor environment is safer than the indoor environment. Even surfaces in the outdoors are safer than the indoor,” Mr. Cardenas explained. “We don’t have widespread testing available to our athletes. And, even if we did, we would not be able to test with the frequency that is seen at the professional level.”
Most COVID-19 tests are reserved for people that show at least some symptoms.
“There isn’t a lot of information to support testing an asymptomatic population,” Ms. Wilson said.
Instead, temperature checks will become the norm. Each school will have a designated point of contact for COVID-19, usually the athletic trainer.
Football is more of a collision sport than a contact sport and basic aspects of football cannot be altered for social distancing and minimizing contact.
“We have little to nothing as participation in football in a pandemic, or any sport,” Mr. Cardenas said. “This is a collision sport we’re talking about. The advantage it does have it’s outdoors. How much I don’t know. I think we will look to professionals and universities for guidance.”
Ms. Wilson said some ideas can lessen the amount of risk, like minimizing contact in practicing and minimizing points of contact for players during weight sessions and locker room time --- for example, players arriving at school dressed for practice.
Other measures would keep players in smaller groups as often as possible, like a cohort for each position group. Restrictions could be put in place, Ms. Wilson said, on allowing schools to pull up junior varsity players for varsity games.
“My attitude is, I’m just here to help the players and do it safely,” Mountain Ridge coach Doug Madoski said.
After witnessing spring sports across the state lose the last two-thirds of playing time including the playoffs, several local football coaches are willing to go through whatever deviations from normal are needed --- in the hopes some sort of football season is possible.
That could include less games, perhaps five or six for each team, officials speculate.
“I think you have to because we’re not dealing with a traditional calendar year,” Peoria High School coach Will Babb said. “We don’t want to lose the season like our spring sports. We need to figure out a way to make it work safely for kids.”
--- Will Babb
As Deer Valley coach Dan Friedman said in an email, his first two Skyhawks teams were very young and now it is a veteran squad.
“It would be a shame if we didn’t have an opportunity to play this year. Any other type of proposal for a season, I think we would be able to adapt to,” Mr. Friedman stated.
Depending on the spread of COVID-19, the start of the season could be pushed back, as could the end of it. One local coach is in favor of this solution unless the number of positive tests in Arizona begins to drop dramatically.
Valley Vista coach Josh SeKoch said it would be prudent to push the start of practice --- now set for July 27 --- and games back two weeks or so. In that scenario students would return to school and school districts would have some data on how healthy the school population is back on campus before full practices begin.
“My one thought would be to delay the start of the season a little bit. Why not let the kids start school and see how that is before we start playing,” Mr. SeKoch said. “Build yourself in some flexibility to see if it goes well.”
Mr. SeKoch said he also would support a statewide midseason break for testing.
Some parts of the state may not be able to play as soon as others, due to a higher number of cases.
Both Mr. Cardenas and Ms. Wilson said there is no hard and fast number of cases for players and coaches that would put the brakes on the season. But pockets of increased cases would cause practices and games to stop for contact tracing and quarantine of those players and coaches.
“By no means is it a mandate. Every region may be at a different level of susceptibility. What does it look like for a player coming back from an illness?” Mr. Cardenas said.
And the clock is ticking.
Incidence of COVID-19 is trending upward in the state, with data published on covidexitstratecy.com June 10 showing a 198% increase in positive tests during the past 14 days.
“If football were to start today, we couldn’t play because of the close contact nature of the game,” Wilson said on June 4.