HUDSON, Wis. — If there’s one thing for certain about the state of high school athletics right now, it’s that nothing is certain.
As communities gradually ease their respective coronavirus restrictions, which can differ from one locality to another, area school districts are grappling with a host of questions regarding athletics, including what to do about summer strength and conditioning programs, how to use the 30-day summer contact window afforded by the WIAA after the cancellation of spring sports, and will there even be high school sports in the fall?
“I’ve never experienced anything that has so many unknowns,” River Falls athletic director Rollie Hall said. “I think I’m on Plan G right now.”
School sports have been in limbo since Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer-at-Home order in March closed all public and private K-12 schools and prohibited all school extracurricular and athletic activities through June 30.
The River Falls School Board will meet this week to decide whether to open its school fields and facilities after the state’s order expires in July while New Richmond and Hudson plan to begin hosting in-person strength and conditioning programs beginning July 6.
Hudson’s Raider Elite program has been offering virtual training to around 300 students since June 8. Hudson athletic director Aaron Moen said the district has a detailed plan in place to begin in-person training beginning July 6, including developing small “pods” of students who will train together.
“We’re going to try and focus to be outside in the stadium, but we are going to have a limited number on a rotating basis where we’re going to try and get kids through the weight rooms. Luckily we have two so we can separate things up a little bit,” he said. “What that number is will be much smaller than in the past. But it seems like the key theme is trying to keep kids in the same small groups and control the circles of who is working with who. You hope nothing ever happens but if someone tests positive we can trace back and know who they’ve been with.”
Hall said if River Falls facilities reopen for student-athletes in July, it will be for individual workouts only.
“We’re not going to be having 5-on-5 basketball in the gym,” he noted.
Hall said it’s unlikely any River Falls teams will participate in the 30-day summer contact window the WIAA granted spring teams after it canceled the spring sports seasons April 21, while New Richmond athletic director Casey Eckardt said the Tigers will also not be participating in the WIAA spring sports opportunities in July.
Moen said Hudson would at least like to give its graduating seniors a chance to practice with their teammates, but anything beyond that would be a stretch.
“Nobody has a strong enough pulse on things to be able to say, OK on July 18 we’re going to go ahead and schedule a tentative scrimmage. Because there’s a lot that ties into even scheduling a scrimmage,” he said. “And then you have that letdown if you need to cancel. So to throw that up there right now, I think, would be a little negligent.”
And then there’s the issue of fall sports. The WIAA Board of Control is scheduled to meet June 24 for what figures to be an important meeting in making a decision about the fall. The association issued a statement last week declaring it remains optimistic and hopeful schools will be able to provide sports in the fall, but the decision will ultimately come down to local leaders and health experts to determine if it is safe to do so.
“Safety and health continue to be our biggest concerns,” the statement read. “We have been involved in very detailed and intensive communication with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the governor’s office.”
Hall said unless there is a blanket reassessment of coronavirus guidelines across the state, the questions about safety will remain.
“It’s fine if it’s local,” he noted. “But we have to go to La Crosse three times for football this year. And four La Crosse schools are coming here. What if things are different in that area than this area. Or Superior? or Chippewa Falls? Or Eau Claire? Which are all larger areas. It’s challenging, let’s put it that way.”
He said a fall sports season under current guidelines would pose a host of logistical and financial challenges.
“Right now they’re saying one person to a seat in every other seat for buses,” he said. “That means you’re going to get 12 people on a bus. We take 60 people to a football game. That means we’re taking five buses. And are fans going to be allowed? OK, if fans are allowed is it just so many fans? All these things have to be decided and they’re really going to be decided by people other than us.”
In the meantime, Moen said schools still have to assume that fall sports will take place.
“As far as preparing for the fall season, if you back up from where we are now and project that to the fall, we’re pretty far away from knowing what the fall is going to look like,” he said. “There’s so many question marks. But the number one thing is student safety, and the strength and conditioning programs are a big part of that in trying to make sure that kids are conditioned. The last thing we want is to have a full-fledged opening on the first day of football and kids are doing conditioning and they’ve been sitting on the couch for three months. Or longer than that because they haven’t been in school for three months now.”
Hall said he hopes whatever decisions are made, the safety of everyone remains the number one priority.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s sports, and we all love sports and I think it’s important for the kids and the community,” he said. “But we’re having a hard time just figuring out how to run school next year. I say all this really wanting to have sports. I want for the kids to have sports, but there’s just so many unknowns. And I do not want to be the person that says, OK, we’re going to have this and then somebody gets it and gives it to grandma or grandpa.”