Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday carved a path for the return of most high school and college sports in Oregon, announcing that the Oregon Health Authority is revising its guidance for outdoor sports and allowing exemption requests for college programs.
The move comes with a bevy of caveats, ranging from health and safety protocols to in-person instruction mandates, and varies from county to county depending on COVID-19 risk levels. But, for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic descended on Oregon last spring and devastated the sports landscape, most high school and college athletes have an avenue to resume competition.
“This has been a difficult year for Oregon’s youth athletes and, as our COVID-19 numbers have dropped, I have been committed to working with our health experts to reevaluate our protocols for sports,” Brown said in a release. “School sports play an important role in fostering students’ mental, emotional, and physical health. We will proceed with caution, to ensure that teams are following health and safety precautions to protect our athletes, their families, and their communities.”
At the high school level, outdoor contact sports, most notably football, can resume this week based on county risk levels and under heightened health and safety protocols. In low- and moderate-risk counties, practices and games came resume more or less as normal, with schools following the OHA’s health and safety guidelines. But in high- and extreme-risk counties — like Multnomah and others in the Portland-metro area — schools and sports organizations must “opt-in” to resume outdoor contact sports, Brown said, while implementing additional protocols.
These protocols include on-site testing for symptomatic individuals and close contacts, contact tracing, and a health and safety waiver. In addition to the protocols, Brown said, schools in these counties must also host limited in-person instruction with the goal of “achieving hybrid or full in-person instruction for students this school year.”
“To all of Oregon’s high school athletes: I am asking you now to be leaders in your communities,” Brown said in the release. “We’ve given you the chance to play, but with that opportunity comes great responsibility. If COVID-19 numbers spike, we may have to shut down contact sports again. When you are off the field, set the example for your peers: wear a mask, maintain physical distance, and avoid social gatherings.
“It is not lost on me that this decision today will allow high school football to resume, when too many high school classrooms across Oregon remain empty. To all the parents of student athletes and coaches who have called and emailed me in the last year asking for school sports to resume, I am challenging you now to devote your energy to making sure in-person academics can resume for your kids, too. If our school gyms, fields, and weight rooms are to reopen, we owe it to Oregon’s children to make sure our classrooms, libraries, and science labs fully reopen as well.”
As for lower-level college programs at the Division 2, Division 3 and NAIA levels, the OHA will be updating exemption requests, allowing schools to submit health and safety plans to resume college sports.
The programs will be held to “the same rigorous standards that Oregon’s Division 1 programs have met” before being allowed to resume full activities. This includes regular COVID-19 testing, contact-tracing plans, and other health and safety protocols surrounding practices and games.
But while Wednesday’s announcement facilitates the return of most sports, including football, it does not allow for the return of all.
Indoor contact sports such as basketball and wrestling remain prohibited in all Oregon counties — with the exception of the men’s and women’s basketball programs at the state’s four Division I schools — which will continue to leave out thousands of frustrated student-athletes. Also, schools and organizations in high- and extreme-risk counties that refuse to opt-in and follow enhanced protocols will continue to be limited to non-contact sports, practices and games.
But Wednesday’s announcement was welcome news for thousands of teenagers across the state, who have been waiting and wondering when — and if — their seasons would begin.
“We’ve been getting a lot of questions from people today, saying, ‘Hey this is great news, but what does it all mean?’” Peter Weber, the Oregon School Activities Association executive director, said. “People are excited about this, they feel like it’s another step in getting more kids back to participation. Now we just have to figure out the logistics of how we make it happen and how we support schools as they get things back up and running.”
The OSAA has mapped out a truncated 2020-21 season, grouped into three tiers of sports, that will guide Oregon high schools through what’s left of the school year. The first tier — Season 2 — features football, cross country, soccer and volleyball, and those sports are scheduled to begin practices on Feb. 22 and hold their first games on March 1.
The season will span six weeks, featuring a five-week regular season and a to-be-determined one-week postseason the OSAA is calling a “culminating week.” Sports in Season 3 and 4 will follow in succession and also feature six weeks of competition, stretching into May.
It’s unclear how many schools located in extreme- and high-risk counties will choose to “opt-in” for football — or even be in a position to do so based on the in-person instruction mandate. When new state coronavirus data is released on Friday, there are expected to be 25 counties listed as high or extreme risk. They include 254 high schools.
“We still need to get a little clarification on a few things with the high- and extreme-risk counties,” Weber said. “But this is exciting. It’ll provide increased access for students, particularly with those in the outdoor contact sports.”
— to www.oregonlive.com