The coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world in mid-March, including in Montana, where the Montana High School Association had to call off its state basketball tournaments after the semifinal rounds and ultimately cancel the spring sports seasons.
Now, four months later, the fall sports schedule remains up in the air.
The MHSA executive board has outlined guidelines and protocols to assist member schools in navigating summer workouts. The plan for the fall remains unknown, even as August approaches, but more information is expected by the end of July. As of now, the MHSA calendar lists the first eligible date for practice this year as Aug. 13 for golf and Aug. 14 for football, volleyball, soccer and cross country. Golfers can start competing as early as Aug. 15, while the other four sports are eligible for competition starting Aug. 27.
While surging positive COVID-19 cases in Montana raise alarms, the MHSA is fortunate that its fall sports calendar typically starts later than most states in the country. Many associations have already had to make tough decisions, with Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, writing that eight states have delayed the starts of their 2020 fall sports seasons.
"Although there will be areas of the country where a return to the classroom and to activity programs may be delayed due to spiking COVID-19 cases, we believe the resumption of in-person classes, sports and other activities is crucial to the growth, development, and mental and emotional wellness of our nation’s youth," Niehoff wrote in an article published to the NFHS website on Wednesday.
New Mexico's high school athletics association has so far taken the most drastic measure, delaying all sports and postponing football and soccer until 2021. The high school football and soccer seasons are now scheduled to start in February, according to the New Mexico Activities Association.
Virginia, too, seems poised to finish the 2020 calendar year without a high school football season. The Virginia High School League executive committee will make a final determination on July 27, when it will vote on three proposed models. None of the models allow for football in the fall, and one option includes the outright cancellations of football and volleyball, among other sports.
Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington also appear headed to delayed starts to the fall sports seasons.
It's not all doom and gloom across the country, though, as some states have announced plans to proceed as scheduled. North Dakota and Idaho are among the states to have made that decision. The high school athletic associations in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah have all at least tentatively indicated they plan to proceed with fall sports on their normal schedules with varying guidelines, as well. Maryland, for example, doesn't expect fans in the stands when competitions start. Those athletic associations also include one large caveat: Their seasons are subject to change depending on the spread of COVID-19 and the directives from local leaders and health departments.
Iowa and Oklahoma, specifically, have already made steps toward the return of sports. Iowa is the only state in the country that plays its baseball and softball schedules primarily in the summer, and those teams hit the diamond in June, playing the first sanctioned high school sports contests since March. In Oklahoma, cross country, softball, volleyball and fall baseball teams were able to start organized practices on Wednesday of this week.
But the majority of states are taking wait-and-see approaches and not rushing into any decisions. Many haven't provided recent updates, and some of those that have -- like Illinois and Minnesota -- have only done so to state that their athletic associations will defer to their state governors and health departments.
"In order to conduct sports and other activity programs in a safe manner, it will take a resolve on the part of everyone to keep going and keep trying," Niehoff wrote. "Things will not look the same as in the past. And there should be an abundance of care for coaches, administrators, officials and others who are more susceptible to the virus than the students. But a return to play must be done with a positive and informed perspective to keep these programs going. We need to be in the moment and working together."