Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, looks forward to meeting with the IHSA, but said an exact date won’t be set until there is more information available on potential progress being made against the recent COVID-19 spike.
Ezike was interviewed on Sports Radio 1450-AM in Springfield on Tuesday morning, with co-hosts Sam Madonia and Greg Halbleib. She said she hopes to meet with the IHSA soon about the future of high school sports.
“I know it’s a really important issue,” Ezike said in the interview. “I’m very open to (meeting with the IHSA). I don’t really want to do it today, it’s more productive when we can give them some more concrete timelines. Not being able to do that right now is discouraging and maddening for the families and the students, when you try to set a date and it has to change again.”
The IHSA modified its sports seasons in an effort to meet IDPH guidelines and get every sport a chance to play in the 2020-21 school year. A fourth season was added, while the three others were shortened.
In the fall, there were few issues with low-risk sports – cross country, golf and girls tennis – competing outside, while girls swimming was inside. But as the winter season neared, COVID numbers spiked across Illinois and sports, even those considered low-risk, were put on hold.
The IHSA was supposed to start with bowling, girls gymnastics, boys swimming, cheerleading and dance for the winter season (Nov. 16 through Feb. 13). But those have yet to start. Wrestling, a high-risk winter sport, was moved to the summer season (May 3 through June 26) and basketball, a winter sport elevated from medium- to high-risk in November, is still to be determined.
Ezike is hopeful as the first rounds of a vaccine have been administered around the country.
“I think the future is bright,” she said. “We’ve been really trying to see how we can get the infection rates and the transmission rates down so that we can have school. Everybody agrees that school is essential, that in-person learning is the way to go. We’ve never said, ‘Close schools.’ I want to be clear that the governor (J.B. Pritzker) has never said shut down any schools. We’ve told schools, ‘Please work with your local health department to figure out what’s the best situation in your specific area.’
“We haven’t curbed all the transmission yet, but as we get a better hold, you’ll have less interruptions in schools. As those things happen, all the other good things will happen too: increased capacity, increased availability of gatherings, increased ability to have sports. All of that is on the horizon. We’re looking forward to in 2021.”
Ezike said the IDPH has met multiple times with the IHSA, although there have been times the IHSA asked for more guidance and help from the IDPH and did not felt like it received enough.
The IHSA hopes to be able to start its winter sports season in January. It might be cut in half, but it would at least be something. First, the IHSA needs the approval of the IDPH if COVID numbers fall far enough.
“My staff and myself have met with the IHSA (in the past),” Ezike said. “Everyone is a partner in this. Everyone has a role, everyone has a position. It’s really helpful to hear, they’ve sent us so many documents and drafts and I know how important this topic is to so many people.
“We will look forward to having that meeting. It’s been requested. We haven’t had one in a while, that’s definitely something we’ll work toward.”