The Illinois High School Association and Illinois Department of Public Health spent months moving in lockstep on the matter of high school sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That changed Oct. 28, when the IHSA Board of Directors defied Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the IDPH by saying it would allow a basketball season to begin in November, going against Pritzker’s wishes of a spring campaign.
Individual school districts and oversight groups are left in a quagmire as a result. Do they too turn against IDPH guidance? Or do they disappoint communities by postponing basketball until the IDPH deems is safer to play?
The latter option is being selected by more and more local leaders with each passing day, ahead of next Thursday’s IHSA board meeting to which members of the Pritzker/IDPH camp have been invited.
“Without the ... blessing of the IDPH, with them moving basketball into a high risk category (up from medium risk) two weeks ago, all of our other school plans are following the guidance form the IDPH,” Mahomet-Seymour superintendent Lindsey Hall said. “So to kind of be outside the guardrails with basketball on that is not a place that I’m comfortable being.
“When IDPH chose to move basketball into a high-risk category, that was a game-changer, so to speak. When you increase your exposure to liability and risk you have to make hard decisions, and this is one of those.”
It’s a decision at least 17 area schools are committed to as of Thursday evening, either by board of education vote, ruling from a state diocese or other internal choice.
Arcola, Argenta-Oreana, Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, Chrisman, Georgetown-Ridge Farm, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, Hoopeston Area, La Salette, Mahomet-Seymour, Paxton-Buckley-Loda, Rantoul, St. Thomas More, Salt Fork, Schlarman, Tuscola, Uni High and Urbana have all decided to postpone their seasons.
Officials of Unit 4 Schools, which includes Centennial and Champaign Central, also have put a hold on all athletic activities while awaiting “further guidance,” according to an e-mail sent to parents Thursday.
“The powers that be are certainly trying to err on the side of caution,” Urbana boys’ basketball coach Verdell Jones Jr. said. “Based upon a lot of great information from IDPH and the governor’s office, (playing) is probably not the best course to proceed down. It seems like the COVID is spiking right now. Certainly we don’t want to contribute to that.”
On Oct. 29, the IHSA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee released its own guidelines for teams moving forward with playing basketball, including all involved in games being required to wear a mask.
Practices are still set to begin Monday, though the IHSA’s board on Wednesday requested all who participate follow IDPH rules associated with basketball’s higher-risk designation — meaning non-contact workouts only — until the results of the next board meeting are known.
Uni High athletic director Tim Bicknell said the Illineks will practice at Kenney Gymnasium on the University of Illinois campus despite their boys’ and girls’ seasons being postponed. Bicknell said Uni High’s fall sports participation proves to him that the Illineks, who are engaged in all-remote learning, need events like basketball practices, even without the promise of games.
“We have 17 girls right now signed up to start practice on Monday,” Bicknell said. “Our students have access to daily testing. We’re requiring basketball players to test a minimum of twice weekly with the U of I rapid saliva test. We feel confident with our situation as far as practice only.”
Bicknell wants next Thursday’s IHSA board meeting to produce “clarity about language” when it comes to basketball scheduling. If it turns out no basketball will be played until later in the school year, when exactly is that transpiring?
“When I hear someone from the governor’s office say we’re waiting until spring, I don’t know what they mean by spring,” Bicknell said. “When people use terms that aren’t well defined in this pandemic, dealing with athletics, that makes it confusing for a lot of us.”
The confusion lies here: The IHSA’s 2021 spring season includes traditional fall sports — football, volleyball and boys’ soccer — while its new 2021 summer slate includes typical spring athletics — baseball, softball, girls’ soccer, track and field and boys’ tennis.
Overlapping sports will be a significant concern, especially at smaller schools like Uni High.
“I hate to even think, if basketball or other things keep getting moved, it’s hard to make kids ever make a choice,” Bicknell said. “It’s not good from a safety standpoint and not good from a coaching standpoint. As an AD, when you’re lining up coaches, coaches sign up thinking, ‘I’m going to coach … during these 12 to 16 weeks.’ Coaches have outside lives. Many of our coaches are not teachers.”
Even though Mahomet-Seymour and its fellow Apollo Conference schools have opted out of the IHSA’s current basketball schedule, Hall views the matter as “fluid and changing.”
“We felt it important to do some communicating about this (Tuesday) with coaches and with prospective players, and we understand it’s disappointing,” Hall said. “But this is the place we find ourselves in right now, and it’s the best decision of a pretty bad situation.”
Jones, whose Tigers won a Class 3A regional championship each of the last two seasons after going 30 years without one, said he can only imagine how frustrated his kids are given his own displeasure with the basketball situation.
“Whatever season they have, the key for them is they want to be ready. They want to put their best foot forward. They want to continue that legacy,” Jones said. “If we ... keep inching the goal post, it certainly can create a sense of hopelessness in our young people.”