Return To Play: How will high school sports come back in Wisconsin?

August marks the normal start of fall high school sports in Wisconsin; usually, this begins with football equipment being issued at the start of acclimatization, a week before other sports begin their practices. In 2020, this date is August 3, the first weekday in August.

It's that date that looms as a significant deadline regarding a decision about the viability of a return to play in high school sports in Wisconsin.

Already, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has had to cancel the winter basketball tournaments; in the case of the girls tournament, while it was in progress in the state championships. While the WIAA had intended to run both basketball tournaments without fans, cancellations from other high school associations all the way up to the major professional sports leagues forced a change of direction during the first day of the girls state tournament and the date of the boys sectional semifinals. The basketballs used in the 44 games played that Thursday had barely been placed back into storage before an announcement came that the season was called off, effective immediately.

Shortly after, the spring sports season was suspended, and eventually canceled, ending the 2019-2020 school year and the careers of high school seniors across the state prematurely.

Since the spring, Wisconsin has had its coronavirus-related lockdowns lifted by lawsuits. Spiking cases this summer turned the prospects of a fall season from eager anticipation of a return to normal to premonitions that it may be months before high school sports will happen again. Now, in July, coaches, athletic directors, school boards, parents, and the WIAA are all coming up with ideas and plans to return to play, responsibly, and as soon as is safe.

Already, one school board has already decided to postpone the start of its fall sports seasons. Waunakee's school board on Monday night decided to eliminate non-conference football games, re-do schedules for other sports, and assigned its co-op program staff to work on logistics for those activities shared with other schools. This would mean most practices would start in the middle of August, rather than the beginning, allowing more time to research and develop plans to provide a safe environment for players and staff.

Other school districts have yet to follow suit, but school boards across the state are meeting in special sessions to work on plans for fall sports. The Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association (WADA) is set to meet next week, as are the ADs from the Big 8, Badger, and other area conferences as a road map is laid out for how each school, conference, or county will proceed with a return-to-play.

First and foremost, guidance will come from the government and public health departments. In Dane County, athletic competitions are prohibited under current orders in the Forward Dane Reopening Plan. Gatherings are limited to a few dozen people outdoors in different areas around Wisconsin, which is prohibitive to conducting a football practice or contest. In the absence of statewide restrictions, much of the guidance comes from the city or county that a school resides in. That in itself creates a near-infinite number of logistical scenarios in which schools will range from being barred from any in-person gathering up to no restrictions and business as usual, depending on the school location.

The WIAA itself has indicated they will conduct state tournaments if enough schools opt to participate in sports; its summer contact guidance was largely done in conjunction with several health or government organizations, as well as the NFHS, so it's safe to reason that the WIAA would only conduct these events in areas where restrictions are looser. Dane County has had some of the most restrictive measures against the spread of coronavirus, so venues such as Camp Randall Stadium or University Ridge for state championships may not be an option come October and November.

One path suggested by the WIAA at its June Board of Control meeting was for the possible cancellation of non-conference games or elimination of playoff rounds, in an effort to mitigate spread of COVID-19. In the case of football, doing both (by eliminating Level 1) could move the start date of football contests to September 11, after Labor Day, and after most schools are back in session (either virtually, in-person, or somewhere inbetween). The three weeks could allow districts to come up with comprehensive plans covering academics and activities, although some districts already have those plans in place (such as Milwaukee Public Schools). It's expected in the Big 8 and Badger Conferences that the non-conference season will be canceled, as soon as next week according to several coaches, staff, and community members on social media.

Another option, reported by Travis Wilson of WisSports.net on Thursday, that would move fall sports to the spring, inbetween winter and spring sports. The plan, obtained by iHeartMedia, would condense the three sports seasons into a span from January to July. Winter sports would be conducted January to March, fall sports would run March to May, and spring sports would become summer sports and run May to July. The seasons would be reduced in terms of numbers of contests in order to fit them in to the shortened window of dates.

Outright cancelling fall sports seasons is probably the most plausible outcome, but like the spring, it's likely the WIAA and member schools will take steps, such as the cancellation of non-conference games, before eliminating fall sports entirely.

Some of the frustration stems from there being no uniform plan in place on a return-to-play, but as we have seen, the guidance can change daily due to changing circumstances. Recent surges in hospitalizations and cases have made even the most stubborn sports associations take a step back to consider alternate plans to the fall; the Green Bay Packers wont be allowing fans at any training camp or preseason events this year. Both the Big Ten and Big East Conferences have stated that they are moving to conference-only play this fall, including Wisconsin Badgers football. The Milwaukee Brewers sold cardboard cutouts to fans in lieu of having fans attend games at Miller Park beginning next week. If the professional and collegiate programs with impressive budgets are taking drastic steps to mitigate spread and limit contact, it stands to reason that high schools across Wisconsin may also have to make big changes without access to the resources those entities possess.

Ultimately, it'll be up to how coronavirus cases drop in the meantime; schools will not want to deal with liability for students, staff, or attendees getting sick at their contests, so unless a waiver process becomes available, it's almost certain fall sports, or even winter sports, will not return until that happens. Sports aside, schools being conducted as usual this fall during a pandemic seems unlikely at best as of mid-July, so decisions and planning now will help smooth the road later on when the virus is less of a threat to not only schools, but life in general.

When high school sports return, it'll be the first clear sign that we are turning the corner on the pandemic. Until then, school districts have their work cut out for them deciding on how and when they will reopen, and how and when activities and athletics return for students all across the great state of Wisconsin.

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