By TOM WILLIAMS
The most frustrating thing about COVID-19 and its affects on high school sports is the waiting.
Nobody knows what is going to happen – not athletes, not coaches, not administrators.
Because decisions about high school sports have to be based on decisions about going back to school. And those decisions are difficult and, no matter what they are in the end, will be controversial.
Everybody wants schools to open and everybody wants high school teams to play. But making that happen safely will be tricky. A lot of it depends on how people behave, whether they accept the decisions about how we need to protect ourselves.
New Jersey has come through a long struggle with this virus. Once a hotbed of infections and deaths, things have slowed down in the Garden State. But, with so many visitors to the state over the spring and summer, precautions are still necessary. Today, Gov. Murphy issued an order requiring masks in public, a step that might not be popular but should help limit another flareup of the virus here.
Keep in mind, the death rate from COVID-19 has decreased a bit (it’s now between four and five percent of those infected) but it has kept people sick for months, led to strokes with partial paralysis and created permanent respiratory illnesses.
The College of New Jersey has cancelled fall sports. So has Stanford and the entire Ivy League. More are coming.
Initially, there was some talk about switching high school football, considered a high-risk sport, to the spring and moving baseball, a lower risk sport, to the fall. There were, of course, other ideas about delaying the start of fall sports. In fact, a few small delays have already happened.
There seems to be a feeling among health experts that things could be better with COVID-19 by the end of the year. Its an optimistic feeling, but it based on some science.
So, here is an idea.
Lets assume most high schools will begin classes on Sept. 8 or 9, right after Labor Day. One popular theory would have students divided into two groups. One would come to class physically on Monday and Wednesday and watch class online on Tuesday and Thursday. The second group would do the opposite. Both groups would be online Friday.
This format, which has some very real obstacles, would be evaluated weekly by administrators with the hope that it could lead to more in-school classes and less online.
With that in mind, lets postpone all high school sports until the end of the year.
You could start the winter season on Saturday, Dec. 26 with holiday tournaments. Basketball’s regular season would continue for seven weeks, ending on Feb. 14. The NJSIAA Tournament would begin on Feb. 15 and continue for two weeks, concluding with state championships on Feb. 27-28. There would be no Tournament of Champions.
Wrestling, swimming and indoor track would be mostly the same with state tournaments and meets the same final weeks of February.
The fall sports would begin the regular season on March 3 and continue through April 17. NJSIAA competitions would start April 19 and conclude the weekend of May 1-2. Only four teams would qualify for the football playoffs in each sectional group and there would only be two rounds to determine sectional champions. And, for weather reasons, girls tennis would be moved to the spring.
Spring sports could start on May 5 and the NJSIAA tournaments would run from June 21-July 2. In all sports, teams that do not qualify for the NJSIAA tournaments, or who are eliminated early, could schedule consolation games.
There is a lot of overlap in this schedule. Practices for one season would probably have to start while another season is still competing. But it can be worked out, hopefully only for one year. The important thing is, everybody gets to play.
By starting school in early September and taking nearly four months to evaluate and progress the attendance schedules, there is a good chance this could succeed.
These last four months have been terrible in so many ways. High school sports is important to most of us but, quite frankly, it is not the most important problem that needs to be solved. Returning students to school buildings is important not only for them but for everybody. Its an crucial step to getting the country rolling again.
But it has to be done safely – for students, teachers and everybody else who will be part of the school day.
If things don’t work out in the classrooms, there probably will be no high school sports. But if the classroom challenges are overcome, this six-month sports schedule could be the answer.