Missouri Says Game On For High School Sports; St. Louis County Blows Whistle
Friday night lights may shine on rural Missouri football fields, but the prospect of a fall sports season in the St. Louis metro area is looking dimmer.
The state’s athletics organization is moving forward with having a sports season open Aug. 10 but is leaving the decision on whether it’s safe to field a team to the local level. Restrictions on youth sports currently in place in St. Louis County are making it unlikely that teams there will be able to play when games begin Aug. 24.
“We would love to have sports continue, but obviously the health and well-being of our students and faculty is the most important thing,” said Amber Jordan, Maplewood Richmond Heights athletic director.
Athletes in the district are meeting at school to lift weights, run or shoot hoops in small groups, she said.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association said there will be no games or playoffs if schools statewide are closed. Also, if a school is offering only virtual learning, it will not be allowed to field teams. But otherwise, it’s planning to hand out state championships.
“It could change tomorrow, it could change next week,” said MSHSAA spokesperson Jason West. “But what we're working on right now is everything's going to start in the fall with that first allowable practice on the 10th.”
Two St. Louis County school districts, Ritenour and Hazelwood, will start the academic year fully online. Others are leaning that way too, and if they do, fields and gyms would be left empty.
The St. Louis Sports Medicine COVID-19 Task Force last week backtracked to Phase 1 of its safety recommendations for sports, capping practices at 10 people and requiring six feet of space among participants and mask-wearing for anyone not exercising heavily. St. Louis County also tightened restrictions on youth activities.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced Thursday that there would be no competition among teams. He blamed summer sports tournaments for causing a spike in COVID-19 cases in the 10-19 age group.
“If these restrictions stay, I don't see how (a season) would happen, because we wouldn't be able to play against other teams,” MRH athletic director Jordan said.
The finger-pointing at youth sports for causing virus spread has angered parents and coaches.
Virus spread is more likely during large group gatherings, said Dr. Mark Halstead, a member of the St. Louis COVID-19 sports task force and MSHSAA’s medical advisory panel, “and so when you talk about youth sports those things are certainly happening when you get to the competition level, and that’s the big concern that we have.”
“We’ve got another four weeks from now until most of the sports season competitions are actually going to potentially start up and a lot of it will depend on what we do as a group in the area, as individuals to help start to trend downward,” said Halstead, who’s a sports medicine physician at Washington University.
MSHSAA didn’t cancel the spring playoffs until April 4, after Missouri’s governor closed schools and issued a statewide stay-home order. By that point, every public school in the state had closed voluntarily.
Illinois’ high school sports organization initially took a more hands-on approach, issuing its own guidance on conducting practices and workouts. The Illinois High School Association has since deferred to the state education department and adopted its rules.
IHSA is currently planning to run fall sports competition as well, but spokesperson Matt Troha said that’s subject to change. If group limits and social distancing rules are in place, some sports will be easier to run than others. Tennis and golf, in which athletes compete alone and without contact, are easier to imagine.
IHSA officials will meet with state education department and public health administrators Friday to discuss the fall season.
Infections in teens and young children tend to be mild compared to those in adults, early public health research found, though disease experts are unsure how likely children are to spread the virus among themselves or to adults.
School districts in the farther reaches of the St. Louis region are planning to offer more in-person educational opportunities and are also moving forward on having student-athletes take the field. But if there is little or no competition to be had with St. Louis County schools, schedules may look a little bare.
“We can’t have a game without anyone to play,” said J.P. Prezzavento, a spokesperson for the Fox School District in Jefferson County.
Fox was supposed to move into a more laxed phase of allowances for practices and gatherings this week, but extended tighter limits for another week. Prezzavento said that a sports season will be a regional decision and that blowing the whistle on sports is still quite possible.
“Nothing is set in stone,” he said.
Sports are ingrained in the culture of American high schools, boosting community pride and school spirit. Organizers say they teach leadership and discipline and offer a motivation and path to higher education for some.
Troha said the IHSA has heard from member schools that “if we are going to be back in school, and these kids are going to be together in the classrooms, then it's a priority for them to make these opportunities available.”
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