No matter how much planning there was for the return to preps sports in Illinois during the pandemic, there was little time to prepare for the start of games. All the work had to be done in just a few days, as players and coaches wanted to start action immediately once they got approval in late January from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois High School Association.
Practices and games had to be scheduled and coordinated for several sports for girls and boys. Attendance, busing and scheduling officials had to be determined, and the majority of this work has been the responsibility of athletic directors, assistant athletic directors and athletic department administrative assistants. They have done yeoman’s work.
Athletic departments across the state have the added responsibility of making sure all state, IHSA and additional local protocols are followed. If a player tests positive for COVID-19, it impacts an entire program. Those in close contact with the player have to quarantine and that means games and practices are sometimes canceled. And often those games can’t be rescheduled.
Winter sports, happening now, include boys and girls basketball, badminton, bowling, girls volleyball, boys swimming and diving and competitive dance and cheer, which are done virtually. In March comes football, boys soccer and boys volleyball. In April, baseball, softball, boys tennis, track & field and boys volleyball start.
There has been a massive impact on school bus programs. Often, the number of teams traveling on a bus is limited. For example, in most cases, the freshman and sophomore teams travel separately and have to leave immediately after their games. For them, there’s no more watching the varsity after the freshman or sophomore games end.
After the freshman and sophomore games, the gymnasiums need to be sanitized before the varsity and a new set of fans are allowed in. And every player, coach and official has to bring their own water bottles and towels.
Spectators are limited to 50 per event, and teams with larger rosters have a limited number of family members who can attend games. And all fans have their temperature taken and are registered for contact tracing before they can enter the event.
Meanwhile, game officials have to come dressed and ready to call games; they can’t be assigned locker rooms for safety reasons. And some events have mask breaks during contests so everyone can take a breather.
Schedules for practices have been challenging. Some practices are early in the morning, before classes start. Other practices are later in the evening. Because students can’t stick around after school, they have to return home and then come back later for their practice. Often school activity buses pick up and take students home later in the evening after their practice.
Custodial staff are also critical, working early and late to sanitize after each activity.
Meanwhile, multisport athletes are really being put to the test. Basketball players wanting to play football have to participate in a minimum number of football practices before they can start play on March 19. That means morning football practices or weights sessions, then a full day of school followed by basketball practice or a game. Somewhere in between they have to do homework. This time also means extra long days for those who coach multiple sports.
Athletic department administrative assistants are doing a summer’s worth of work in just two weeks to make sure all athletes have their required physicals to play. They also are doing multiple daily cross checking of each school’s COVID-19 list that’s maintained by the school nurse, alerting the athletic department to players who should be in quarantine. The administrative assistants also have to juggle last-minute busing needs, game officials assignments and practice and game schedules.
“Everything is moving so fast,” said one administrative assistant. “We knew it was coming, but we didn’t know when or what it would look like when IDPH and ISHA approved the return of high school sports. It’s been a mad dash to figure everything out.”
Parents have been taking the uncertainty in stride, some athletic departments report. Most have access to watch a digital stream of their children’s games through the NFHS Network, and some school districts have access to discounts for monthly or year-long subscriptions for some varsity high school sports streams. This comes in handy as the number of people who can attend games has been limited.
Besides the athletic directors, assistant athletic directors, coaches, athletic department administrative assistants, officials and custodians, schools are counting on the dozens of staff and volunteers to work the games, do screenings and contact tracing at the door before events, and bus drivers who are making things work. They are invaluable, and allow young athletes to have the opportunity to play, no matter how short their season is this year.
And their work is also about following protocols and keeping everyone healthy and safe.
In the end, high school sports will be in a better place come next fall, when we hope sports can return in full, because of what we are experiencing and learning now.