With the high school fall sports season starting at the end of the month, the Alaska School Activities Association has released recommended COVID-19 return-to-play protocols.
“ASAA believes and research supports, it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of students to return to physical activity and athletic competition,” the protocol document reads. “We recognize that all students may be unable to return to – and sustain – athletic activity at the same time across the state. There will likely be variations in what sports and activities are allowed to take place. This may lead to inequities, however ASAA endorses the idea of returning students to school-based athletics and activities in any and all situations where it can be done safely.”
What will fall sports look like at Kodiak High School during a pandemic?
The answer could change a handful of times during the next few months, but it will most certainly involve COVID-19 staples like social distancing, face cloths and hand washing.
As of Monday, activities director Debbie Rohrer said the season is set to kick off on July 29 when football, cross country, tennis and football cheerleading begin official practices. Volleyball and swimming start a week later.
“I do see those (sports) starting, but with a mitigation plan in place for that to happen,” Rohrer said. “As of today, the plan is to start on July 29.”
While ASAA is preparing to hold fall sports and state championship events, Rohrer said the organization is leaving the option to participate in activities and develop mitigation plans up to each district. She said Kodiak administrators have discussed a fall without and with sports, with the ultimate decision being the safety of students and coaches. If the school year starts without sports, Rohrer said an intramural program would be developed.
“We have to be prepared to fly by the seat of our pants — you have to be willing to be flexible and make things work,” she said. “For us as a district, we know the importance of having things and activities for students to do. However that may look this year, we need to have things in place for students to be a part of and to do.”
Billy Strickland, the executive director of ASAA, spoke about the protocols his organization unveiled during a state ECHO zoom conference about sports and activities on Monday.
“In putting together these recommendations, we anticipate these recommendations changing as we learn more about the virus and how it is spreading,” he said. “We also felt that we needed to get something out to schools so they can begin having a chance to plan for their own activities ... We cannot say that this is the only way you can run activities, we wanted these documents to be flexible enough that you could work with your local decision makers along with the state in deciding what is best to do.”
He noted that their could be rule changes for the fall, like volleyball teams not switching benches after a set and no post-game handshakes.
“Those will be coming out shortly, we just are not ready to post them yet,” Strickland said.
One of the biggest challenges facing Kodiak athletics is travel. Will other districts allow teams to fly or ferry to the island, and will the Kodiak district let its teams travel to the mainland during a pandemic? School districts would also have to have a plan for a player or coach testing positive for COVID-19 while on a trip.
“You can’t get on a plane to fly, so they may be there for a bit of time … this is part of living in the world with COVID right now, we are having to think about what happens if somebody turns positive,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said on Monday’s zoom conference.
Schools on the road system do not face the same issues that Kodiak is facing and have the luxury of driving to an event and returning home the same day. Kodiak not only has to deal with boarding a plane, but also having to find housing, if a school or church does not open its doors to the players.
Outside of noncoference games, most of Kodiak’s sports teams play schools housed in the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su Valley areas.
“Some districts may say we are going to play, but we are only going to play teams in our district or in our area, which we don’t have any teams like that,” Rohrer said.
ASAA has created three protocol categories — low, intermediate and high risk. Games and practices could be conducted in the low-risk category, while all games would be canceled in the high-risk level. All categories emphasize social distancing, wearing a face covering and washing hands.
The organization also put sports in three tiers, with the highest tier containing sports with the most contact, like football and wrestling. Cross country is tier I, while tennis and volleyball are tier II. Swimming lands between the first two tiers.
“Even though ASAA has said yes, we are going to do this because we think sports and activities are good for kids, which I would agree, there is a lot more to it than saying we are going to go,” Rohrer said.
Rohrer is concerned about the financial burden that will be put on schools and teams as fundraising efforts have been curtailed because of COVID-19.
With Ravn’s bankruptcy, Kodiak — and visiting schools — will now have to use Alaska Airlines, which, Rohrer said, has not offered a flat rate for teams like Ravn did. Alaska also does not offer flights to Kenai, which Ravn did.
“The cost of everything ends up going way high,” she said. “That is going to be a struggle for teams that are planning on coming here.”
Rohrer said she is meeting with other Region III activity directors this week to discuss the landscape of the fall season.
“There are so many things that play into everything,” she said. “It is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
The coronavirus pandemic caused ASAA to cancel the end of the 2019-2020 basketball season and all spring sports. Rohrer was hoping the virus would have worked its course by now, but it hasn’t as confirmed COVID-19 cases have risen across the state the past few weeks, with a record 116 cases (resident and nonresident) recorded on Saturday. Five of Kodiak’s 15 confirmed cases have been reported since Thursday.
“I was looking forward to getting back to normal,” she said. “It’s not looking that way at the moment.”