FLEMING ISLAND - In a five hour marathon meeting that looked much like a fourth grade discussion on college algebra, the Florida High School Athletics Association and the COVID-19 Task Force had a simple task of hearing a Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) report and making a decision on fall sports.
A final vote came at 10 p.m. (5 p.m. start) that ended with a 10-5 vote to offer play with a caveat that teams are not bound to adhere to the current FHSAA calender but teams can declare to not play for a state series time frame, but can continue play at their own discretion in a regular season schedule that would go through the state series calender.
“The school would have to declare by a date certain by sport that their intent is to continue to the state series and if the school declares they do not want to continue to the state series, staff would have the flexibility to work with the schools to schedule regular season games that would go through the state series,” said FHSAA Executive Director George Tomyn. “Our staff can be flexible into December and even into March 2021 though that is extreme if schools are only able to play in that timeframe.”
The idea was put on the docket by Bobby Johns, coach at Wewahitchka High and formerly coach at Baker County High School.
“If a team can start on July 27, great, if it’s August 10, then go then and leave the end date flexible whether it is in the state series or beyond,” said Johns.
In essence, play when you are ready for however long you are able.
The decision seemed to eliminate the anxiety of teams not playing at all while trying to coordinate for the traditional state playoffs while also adhering to COVID restrictions or to play as they are prepared to be in a safe environment.
One of the main objections for starting at July 27 and possible at August 10 came from Gulliver Prep Hall of Fame softball coach Mark Schusterman who tried to slow the meetings decision from being dominated by football as the crux of go or no go.
“This is something we have never seen,” said Schusterman. “Six counties in the state are tops in the nation with the COVID virus. If colleges are cancelling all fall sports, it isn’t worth it to have just one child become sick. We are what New York was in April.”
Schusterman noted stats of 6,000 cases in Escambia, 16,000 cases in Duval County and 23,000 cases in Orlando.
“We are putting kids in danger,” said Schusterman. “This is spreading.”
Jeff McLean, athletic director at Merritt Island High School, noted that the four starting dates for schools to begin practices comes with a highly-likely transfer potential of athletes in nearby counties unwilling to wait.
“I understand the point of view of a common start date because if a county next to me starts July 27 and I don’t get to start to August 10, what keeps my kids from looking around and going elsewhere,” said McLean.
The SMAC report, voted in a 10-0 favor on three key points; delay a football, volleyball start; have a COVID-19 Screening procedures in place for all sports and a HOLD HARMLESS waiver for participation was presented by Mayo Clinic Dr. Jennifer Maynard. Maynard comes with seven years of SMAC and the prior year as it chairman.
The SMAC report noted no bands on the fields, a 10-day isolation for a positive test, 14 days for team members after an infection arises and fans being a local decision to attend games.
“As of July 17, Florida reported 14,000 with a percent positive rate of 18.7 percent, up from a five percent positive rate in May,” said Maynard. “We have been a steady and steep incline of cases.”
From there, the FHSAA and Task Force looked much like a volleyball game with the ball of knowledge being passed on for hours without resolution.
“We realize with the fluidity of the current school environment, some schools may be returning at different times and in different scenarios,” said Maynard. “Serious consideration should be given to the safety of returning to sport in a virtual only learning environment. Our students/athletes are students first and foremost and we will need to be able to return to a classroom setting safely before returning to a competitive sports arena.”
What seemed obvious was the FHSAA’s insistence on working around their own State Series of post season play.
“I’m in favor of the August 10 so it is the same for everybody,” said McLean. “The whole point is to just play the game. Playing is what we want. If circumstances makes us wait a week or two to be safe, so be it. I’d rather play safe than force the issue just to make the November playoffs. A safe football game any time; even in March, between two good teams may be as good as it gets with all this.”
Task Force President Lauren Otero, athletic director at Tampa Plant High School, noted a superintendent’s consensus thought July 27 was too early.
One repeated voice was that of Broward County Athletic Director Carlos Ochoa, who has his county still in Phase 0 with respect to the state’s incremental phases for returning to sport.
“We can’t even get into our buildings,” said Ochoa. “It is incomprehensible that we open on July 27. We need to rely on science.”
Chris Petricca, a Lee County School Board member, noted that the board’s moving of the vote came seemingly without a Plan B when August 10 arrives.