LAWTON — It is full steam ahead for fall high school sports in Oklahoma. For now. That was the message Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) Executive Director David Jackson expressed during a Zoom conference call on July 23. According to Jackson, the OSSAA will continue to evaluate the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the spread of COVID-19, but as of now, the fall athletic seasons will go on as planned.
“Based on what we have right now, our plan is to move forward in trying to provide our activities in the fall,” Jackson said. “Some of our activities have already started practice, and our plan is to move forward as scheduled with those activities, knowing that before we start competitions, there may have to be a delay. Or if we do get started, there can and probably likely, the interruptions where we have to stop for a while and get started again. But we're going to make an effort to get those activities played in some manner, some version.”
Yet, Jackson concedes, the 2020 season will not look the same as in past years. The pandemic has changed how people can interact due to the fear of being infected with a disease that has taken almost 30,000 lives around the country. That includes close to 500 in Oklahoma. But OSSAA officials say their state can provide its student-athletes a safe environment.
“They're not going to look like what they looked like in the past. We can probably tell you that with some certainty,” Jackson said. “There may be some shortened seasons, there may be some truncated playoff series. So, they're not going to look like what we've been used to, but we feel like that our schools want us to give their kids a chance to have activities again in the safest manner that we possibly can.”
Practices for softball and cross country have already begun with competition set to start the second week of August. Football practices are on tap to begin Aug. 10 with the season kicking off later in the month.
“We are on schedule to start the season as planned,” said Lawton Public Schools Athletic Director Gary Dees. “We have teams that are already practicing and others that will be soon. I am optimistic that we will be able to start the season on time. I also recognize that a lot depends on the current situation we are facing as we get closer to the start date. Safety will be our top priority.”
The OSSAA has left it up to each of the 537 individual school districts to determine if they are capable of holding fall competition. That includes whether the season needs to be delayed or canceled altogether due to the spread of COVID-19 in their area.
“Some school districts would welcome guidance given by the OSSAA while others want to be autonomous and make decisions on what they feel is best for their school district,” Dees said. “I welcome and am appreciative for the guidance knowing that districts have the welfare of their students in mind and make decisions based on what's best for them.”
School districts will also be the ones making the decision on whether fans can attend games.
“During the regular season, that's going to be a local control issue. That local district is going to make that call,” Jackson said. “Once we get to post-season, when we take over the management of those games, all I can tell you is that we will hope to have fans at our games again and trying to do it safely. We want to have fans at our activities. That's such a big part in our minds of the high school experience, of having those fans there.”
According to Jackson, the school districts will also be responsible for safety protocols for student-athletes, coaches and fans to contain the spread of COVID-19. The OSSAA will send out suggested guidelines for districts, but it will be up to them to put their own safety protocols in place.
“The important thing for districts to do is follow the guidelines from the CDC and our state health agencies,” Dees said. “We work closely with our local and state health department. If districts are committed to those standards, they will be efficient in prioritizing the safety of their students. Lawton Public Schools does have safety protocols for wearing masks in our buildings and facilities. At this time, this does not include when student-athletes are practicing with their respective teams. Testing is not mandatory but we have guidelines and safety procedures in place for the welfare of our athletes.”
Even though the OSSAA is planning to have sports continue on their normal fall schedule, Jackson says they realize the situation can change quickly depending on surges and spikes of COVID-19 throughout the state.
Recently, the University Interscholastic League, which is the governing body of prep athletics in Texas, announced they were pushing back the start of football and volleyball season by one month for its large schools (Class 5A, 6A). This option is on the table for Oklahoma as well.
“So that is our goal right now, that we have contingency plans to manage those interruptions, those delays. And we're still working on some others because there can be several different delaying and interrupting scenarios.” Jackson said. “But we're working to try to be able to have a plan to manage those as we encounter them, and still try to have our activities.
"The progression that we're looking at is first of all, delay. If we need to delay, let's see a move forward. If we have to stop during the middle of the semester; if we're interrupted because of a spike in numbers or information that we receive from the experts say it's not wise to move on, then we may stop and try to resume when it's a good time to,” he said.
A last resort for the OSSAA is to push back its fall schedules into the spring. That is something the states of Washington and California have already decided to do. Other states with high coronavirus rates are considering the same option.
“We considered the option of moving some activities to the spring, we have,” Jackson said. “And we're looking at a plan to maybe, worst-case scenario, have to conduct all our activities during the spring semester. If that's the case, we're looking to do that as well. So, we're trying to think through all the different scenarios that could be presented, and again, would allow our kids to have their activities and to do so in the safest manner which we possibly can.”