Despite being in an ‘extreme risk’ county, schools in Malheur County could start offering practices and games for outdoor contact sports, including football, beginning this week. This can be done so long as the schools do two things: Opt in and meet measured health and safety protocols for COVID-19, including testing.
However, the prohibition on indoor sports continues.
Gov. Kate Brown announced on Wednesday that the Oregon Health Authority will be revising its guidance for outdoor sports, including the exemption for college athletics.
For counties deemed in ‘lower’ or ‘moderate’ risk levels for spreading COVID, practice can resume so long as it follows guidance pending from OHA.
In ‘high’ and ‘extreme’ risk counties, “schools and other sports organizations can opt-in to resuming outdoor contact sports with additional protocols in place.” In these counties, including Malheur, there must be “on-site responsive testing for symptomatic individuals and close contacts, contact information for contact tracing, and a waiver identifying health and safety risks and a commitment to isolation and quarantine if exposed to COVID-19,” reads a news release from the governor’s office.
Schools in ‘high’ and ‘extreme’ risk counties which do not opt in, will still be able to continue limited to non-contact sports, practices and games.
Brown acknowledged in her release that it has been a difficult year for athletes, and she is committed to reevaluating protocols in order to foster mental, emotional and physical health.
The exemption updates expected for colleges does not impact schools in the Northwestern Athletic Conference, including Treasure Valley Community College. However, colleges in Division 2, Division 3 or NAIA will be able to submit health and safety plans to resume athletics.
In an example of how fast the game is changing, the Oregon Schools Activities Association Board of Directors on Monday voted to OK the start of non-contact conditioning practices for football teams starting this week, rolling out alternatives for schools not permitted to return to a full-contact season.
Brown acknowledged that her decision Wednesday would allow the return of full-contact football.
Ontario High School Athletic Director Josh Mink on Monday said the school district was anticipating the next move for football and volleyball.
Upon learning of Brown’s announcement Wednesday, he stopped to talk to the newspaper just before getting ready to talk to the football team to give them the news.
“Obviously we are excited about the news and guidance, and will make sure our boys are doing everything they can to be ready to play and stay healthy the whole season,” Mink said.
Additionally, he is excited to see that there will be new guidelines coming down from OHA, and wants to know if it will change the rules for how many people they can have on the field or whether it changes things for volleyball.
“We’re just excited,” he said, adding anything to help boost the spirits for the kids.
He said the football schedule will be up soon on the OSAA website and that there will be information on how to watch games as soon as possible on the school website. Earlier this week, he announced that home games would be broadcast at no charge by the district, thanks to a newly installed camera system on the playing field.
Vale School District Superintendent Alisha McBride upon hearing the news said she was “really optimistic” about the return of sports to Vale, saying she watches the COVID-19 case numbers daily and weekly and has “high hopes” Malheur County will move into a lower risk category soon.
It’s too soon to know whether the district will opt in for contact sports; however, McBride said the aim is to continue to prioritize safety and provide opportunity.
“That has been our goal since the beginning of the school year,” she said. “I think as a district we want to provide our students with any opportunities we can provide as long as it’s in a safe manner and we can meet requirements.”
OSAA also voted Monday to amend a rule that limits practice. In so doing, out-of-season team sport coaches will be allowed to work with the students who chose to do so beginning Feb. 22 for up to six hours per week on fundamental skills.
Practice for Harper
Superintendent Ron Talbot earlier this week said that Harper will be picking up track practice until “Oregon opens back up,” and that fall sports wouldn’t likely come back to Harper.
However, after hearing the recent news from Brown, he said it looks like they will consider playing 6-man football if they can pick up enough games to play in this year’s hybrid league.
The Harper School District Board of Directors was expected to at least talk about it at Thursday night’s regular meeting.
In order to play 6-man football, Talbot said he would ideally need 10 players to sign up and was surveying students Thursday to see if they were interested.
Another thing to consider is the school’s summer closure date coinciding with the OSAA’s currently scheduled start for the abbreviated fall sports season.
“We are out of school May 21, our staff are off contract by then and we have students going into the military and off to their jobs,” he said.
And then there’s the field.
“My concern is the field frozen,” Talbot said, adding that he would raise that issue with the board. “So you throw somebody down on frozen ground it’s going to hurt, there is safety concerns we want to consider.”
Whether practice might resume at Harper for out-of-season sports isn’t known at this time. However, Talbot said there may be some interest to do skill-building in open gym.
“With athletics, it’s frustrating,” he said earlier this week of how school closures have impacted them. “For [the OSAA] to come out and say we have to follow the Oregon Health Authority, here’s your seasons, but you can’t if OHA says you can’t — then right across the river [in Idaho] they are having a full on track and basketball season, but our kids didn’t even suit up.”
“This is causing lots of issues with students being depressed and losing out on scholarship opportunities.”
The governor issued a word of caution to those high-schoolers who end up getting the opportunity to play sports before the school year is out.
“To all of Oregon’s high school athletes: I am asking you now to be leaders in your communities. We’ve given you the chance to play, but with that opportunity comes great responsibility,” Brown said. “If COVID-19 numbers spike, we may have to shut down contact sports again. When you are off the field, set the example for your peers: wear a mask, maintain physical distance, and avoid social gatherings.”