What will it take for high school football to return to Southern California in 2020? Right now, that’s the million dollar question and every possible scenario is on the table.
As of late May, here is the road map.
Step 1: A return to academics
There will be school in the fall. Will it be in person? Will it be online only? Will it be a combination of both? Those are decisions that public school districts and private school administrators will make.
There will not be one set date where all schools in the state open. It will be on a district by district basis — and school by school basis for private schools — according to state Supt. of Instruction Tony Thurmond.
“There will not be a common opening, rather school districts will make their own decisions about when they will open,” Thurmond said Wednesday. “The state Department of Education will keep track of district reopenings as they’re scheduled.”
Once those dates are decided, then discussions on how to safely return to athletics can be made. While in person academics are not necessarily tied to bringing back sports, how could football be played if students aren’t allowed to go to school?
“I would find [having full on distance learning and sports] very hard to do,” LA City Section Commissioner Vicky Lagos said.
In LAUSD, multiple sources have said the district is currently working on a plan that would involve students attending school in-person for two days each week, then distance learning for two days. Fridays would be used to offer any extra help students may need, either in-person or online. This plan would allow for social distancing in classrooms.
What this means for a football season in the LA City Section is unclear at this time. LAUSD will eventually address how the plan to return to school impacts sports in the district, like every other public district/private school will do after superintendents and administrators make their decision on what academics will look like. That’s step one.
In a recent episode of the Scorebook Live California Podcast, Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod broke down the decision-making process school districts will make:
There are different start dates for public schools and private schools. Decisions have to be made on the local level. Public schools, superintendents, private school heads of schools, school boards, they’re going to have to decide when they’re going to bring academics back. And we are an academically based organization. Our motto is academics, integrity, athletics. So it’s academics first. And they are going to have to decide when they bring academics back. And when they do, then they have to decide when they bring athletics back. … It’ll be interesting to see if a school decides to go ahead and allow athletic activities even in advance of their first day of instruction. But as I said, that’s still going to be their decision. If they want to allow them on campus to start volleyball practice two weeks before school actually starts, which again, in a normal circumstance, that was very common, they could. But we don’t know as we go forward from here. I think everything’s on the table.
Step 2: Figuring out when it makes sense to play football
It will be much easier for golf and tennis to be played at the high school level due to the ability to maintain distance from opponents. Determining when it will be safe to block and tackle is the next challenge when it comes to returning to football.
The NFHS released recommendations on how to carefully “open up” athletics and activities for member schools amid the fluid state of the COVID-19 pandemic. While these are only guidelines and not mandatory rules, they still provide a blueprint for when/how football can come back.
The NFHS characterizes football as a high risk sport, and recommends that football teams can only begin practicing in the third and final phase of its guidelines. The ability to play games will need to be reassessed when phase 3 begins:
“In phase 3, modified practices may begin for Higher risk sports. Schools must continue pre-practice screening as in Phases 1 and 2, have athletes shower immediately after practices/contests. Schools/districts will re-assess epidemiology data and experiences in other states and other levels of competition to determine when Higher risk sports competition may resume.”
Again, this isn’t a mandate, but the three-phase plan from the NFHS provides insight into what public districts, private schools and the CIF will monitor when deciding on a start date for the football season.
The NFHS guidelines also caution against the likelihood of another Covid-19 outbreak in the fall and winter.
Due to the near certainty of recurrent outbreaks this coming fall and winter in some locales, state associations must be prepared for periodic school closures and the possibility of some teams having to isolate for two to three weeks while in-season. Development of policies is recommended regarding practice and/or competition during temporary school closures, the cancellation of contests during the regular season, and parameters for the cancellation or premature ending to post-season events/competitions.
Until a cure, vaccine or very effective treatment is readily available, or so-called “herd immunity” is confidently reached, social distancing and other preventive measures such as face covering will be a “new normal” if workouts, practices and contests are to continue.
Schools must consider social distancing requirements when scheduling contests and events for the fall. Social distancing (as required by state or local health department) will need to be maintained on buses/vans. Thus, multiple buses/vans and/or parental/guardian transportation will likely be needed.
Keeping all of this in mind, will it be possible for football to come back in the fall? Playing in January is on the table, according to Wigod:
My sense in discussions with our leagues and a lot of different folks that we are in contact with, is that they’re willing to do almost anything to preserve three seasons of sport if we can do it. So if there’s the ability to start the fall sports sometime after the new year and start in January and then have winter sports follow and then spring sports follow after that and finish it all up by the middle of June, I think that’s that’s on the table as well. Instead of just saying, well, we got to a point with fall sports, we just can’t go forward so we have to cancel the fall and focus on starting up the winter. I just get a really strong feeling from our schools that they would like to see some way to keep all three seasons together.
Let’s say all the fall sports had to begin in January. Then you have January, February and half of March and you do fall sports. You’d maybe start the winter in the middle of February, you go the middle of February, March and all of April to finish the winter sports. And then for the spring, you start maybe at the beginning of April and you go all of April, all of May and half of June. And so you’re looking at approximately two and a half months for each season of sport starting in January and finishing in the middle of June.
I still think that’s enough time for viable seasons. We may get to that point. I’d love to see fall sports happen and have them finished in a normal circumstance prior to January, but this is a call to leadership and we need to answer that call. We want to deliver what everybody wants to see happen.
If football can be played, CIF officials in the LA City and Southern Sections are hopeful that fans will be allowed in the stands.
“Why would fans be excluded if students aren’t in a risky situation?” Wigod asked.
Step 3: Consistency across the state
What happens if school districts in Ventura County resume football games before schools in LA County? What if the majority of Southern California private schools green light football by October 1, but the majority of public schools don’t?
That scenario would make it difficult to conduct section playoff games. CIF Southern Section Assistant Commissioner Thom Simmons addressed this issue in an email on Monday:
No decisions have been made on a scenario like the one you’ve laid out. That is part of the ongoing alternative plans that will continue to be discussed, massaged and molded depending on this continuing fluid situation. We’ve discussed what a partial membership return to competition could look like, but at what point is a percentage of membership high enough to justify a structured season of sport culminating in championship playoffs? That is still unclear at this moment in time.
The Southern Section needs league play to occur in order for there to be playoffs and championships because league finishes determine playoff eligibility. If there are enough leagues that allow for football games to be played, the Section could permit those teams to play out a regular season, leaving out teams from schools that don’t allow football to have a season. This is not an ideal scenario, but is better than canceling across the board. Obviously the best case scenario is that every school can play and playoffs and championships will go on as currently planned.
The LA City Section may run into a similar issue. Charter schools could allow for football games to be played regardless of what LAUSD decides because they do not adhere to LAUSD guidelines. If January rolls around and LAUSD schools still aren’t ready to play football, could the charter schools in the City Section have their own season? It’s possible.
While everything is on the table, the state is hoping to have a football season played at the same time across all Sections. In a recent interview with Lagos on the Scorebook Live California Podcast, she discussed that scenario.
“The goal is to have consistency throughout the state,” Lagos said.