Athletic directors were thrilled when the IHSA released its calendar for the rest of the 2020-21 school year on Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re ready,” Genoa-Kingston AD Phil Jerbi said Thursday. “Our kids get the opportunity to participate and to compete, and that’s all we can really ask for.”
Now comes the hard part.
With starting dates announced, ADs are in a race against time to fill out schedules and navigate other logistical hurdles.
“Stuff that would normally take us 10 months, we’re going to have to figure out in 10 days,” Jerbi said. “That’s the biggest logistical nightmare right now. Time is not on our side.”
Some districts and athletic conferences are in more favorable situations than others, such as those with every school already in Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois health plan.
Higher-risk sports, such as basketball, must be in Phase 4 to hold intraconference and contests within a region. Lower-risk sports can hold contests if they are in Tier 2 or less restrictive levels.
Plano AD Jim Schmidt said the Interstate 8 Conference plans to start playing conference basketball games Feb. 9, with games starting at 6 p.m.
I-8 basketball teams will follow a “mirror” schedule. Boys and girls teams from one school will play the same opponent, with JV and varsity games playing simultaneously in two gyms. If the boys teams are away, for example, the girls teams will play at home.
Although some have the luxury of playing multiple games in multiple gyms at the same time, others do not.
G-K currently doesn’t have the gym space needed to play multiple games at the same time.
“Because our school district is in [the] hybrid [learning model] and only half of our kids come to school each day, in order to keep our classrooms socially distanced, many of our desks, tables, chairs and other furniture from our classrooms have been removed,” Jerbi said.
“Guess where they are? They are piled up, 10 feet high, in our second gym. We don’t have the extra [space] available right now, and that’s going to make practices difficult, too.”
And then there is a possibility of problems with transporting students from school to school, Jerbi said.
“[The Illinois State Board of Education] allows 50 kids per bus, but several districts that are currently in hybrid mode are still using the 25 [maximum] capacity, which means now we’ll need multiple buses for certain games.”
Joliet West AD Steve Millsaps is encountering a similar problem for space, albeit for a different reason.
“[The Will County Health Department] is giving out the [COVID-19] vaccine at our field house next week, so that’s another hiccup,” Millsaps said. “We’re trying to do this whole thing without a facility at the moment.”
If a school has JV and varsity games scheduled back-to-back, then there will be more time between contests to clean, sanitize and bring in a different group of spectators.
“Sanitation and protocols are going to be of the utmost importance,” St. Bede AD Nick McLaughlin said. “Wiping down the bleachers and the seats for athletes between games. I know the scorers’ table will have plexiglass barriers. Masks are going to have to be worn by everybody. Those are just some of the things we have to consider.
Marengo AD and boys basketball coach Nate Wright, whose Indians play in the six-team Kishwaukee River Conference, said his biggest frustration right now is not knowing when his team will play.
Marengo is located within Region 9, currently in Tier 1 with a 7.1% positivity rate. But a region must have a positivity rate less than or equal to 6.5% for three consecutive days to reach Phase 4.
Wright said that the KRC plans to start Feb. 9 if the region reaches Phase 4, with each team in conference playing each other twice (home and away).
“The challenge is we’re not in a place where we can actually guarantee that we get to play yet,” Wright said. “The numbers are trending in the right direction, but it’s kind of slowing up, so are we going to be able to get there?
“If we’re not, how long until we get there? Can we reschedule it down the road? Are we looking at days or weeks until we can play?”
Schools and districts have started to look at how they will decide how many and which spectators are allowed to attend contests, but many of those details still are being figured out.
Per the Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines, for those in Phase 4 regions, a maximum of 50 spectators is allowed. In Tier 1, a maximum of 25 spectators is allowed. In Tier 2, no spectators are allowed.
Some are in the process of deciding whether spectators will be allowed at all.
“In the fall, we did not allow any spectators, but we did allow them to come on senior night,” Millsaps said. “When I spoke to our families at that point, I think pretty much everyone was in agreement. We wanted to focus on our kids first and let them play.”
Allocating 50 spectators a game will be tricky. The way that schools handle spectators won’t be uniform.
Schmidt said that the I-8 has decided it will allow two parents per player for home games and one on the road.
“We have to make sure that fans are meeting all guidelines as well,” Schmidt said. “Making sure they’re wearing their masks, making sure we’re checking their temperatures as they come in, making sure they social distance, those are going to be some challenges we’re not used to.”
Joliet West has a Hudl Focus camera in its main gym that can stream to YouTube. Others use the NFHS Network Pixellot system to stream games.
“There’s no perfect solution,” Jerbi said. “The spectator issue is one that’s going to potentially break some hearts of some people, but we have to do what’s best for our kids at this point, and whatever we come up as a conference, we will definitely abide by.”
ADs will be working overtime to figure it all out.
“It’s going to be an interesting week, trying to figure it all out, but as challenging as it’s going to be, it’s a win for the kids,” McLaughlin said. “And that’s what we’re here for.”