The Arizona Interscholastic Association took the first step toward ensuring football players and coaches would be able to follow a specific timeline this fall after voting to move forward with new recommendations from the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
But despite several teams putting helmets on as soon as Monday, Sept. 7, one hurdle remains before kickoff of the shortened season on Oct. 2.
AIA Executive Director David Hines sent a letter Friday to all of the association’s members, explaining the metrics that have to be met before football programs can begin official competition. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Tribune on Friday afternoon.
The letter was accompanied by a chart showing all three benchmarks set forth by state health officials in August that are being used to determine when counties across the state can begin in-person learning. The benchmarks include the number of cases per 100,000 people, the percentage of positive tests and the percentage of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Hines said the SMAC and AIA executive board agreed on set numbers in each category that would allow counties to begin practices and competition. However, Hines said if school districts prefer to look at specific zip codes for their communities to determine when it is appropriate to begin play, that is also acceptable.
“Just because people weren’t really understanding the guidelines, we wanted to try to clear it up,” Hines said. “The SMAC was ok with looking at either county numbers or school district numbers. Everything comes from the Arizona Department of Health. So if there is a better number in the community that allows you to proceed, great. If you are within a county and using those numbers, great.
“We want to make sure we give schools a chance to get through their heat acclimatization. That’s why on Monday, those schools in green and yellow can begin in helmets.”
For counties to be cleared for practices, two of the metrics must be in yellow and at least one in green. As of Aug. 16, which were reflected in the chart sent Friday to schools, 13 out of the 15 counties in Arizona have been cleared to begin official practices. Gila County northeast of the Valley and Graham County in southeastern Arizona have not met the designated metrics, according to the chart.
Here's a look at the chart the AIA sent schools Friday that show where each county stands in regard to the three key benchmarks. pic.twitter.com/Ux3cYASlvk— Zach Alvira (@ZachAlvira) September 4, 2020
Both remain in the red for cases per 100,000 people. Graham, with a 15.4 percent positivity rate, is also in red for that category. To be green, counties must be at 5 percent of lower for positivity rate and 10 cases per 100,000 people.
“It will be tough for Graham County to be green in all three benchmarks, especially the percent positivity because there’s just simply not enough tests to get to that number,” said Lee Patterson, the sports director at KATO 1230AM in Safford, who covers all high school athletics in Graham County. Patterson added Thatcher, Safford and Pima high schools would all go by zip codes within their respective districts rather than county numbers. Because of that, they are all cleared to practice.
Patterson’s stance stems from an interview on KATO with county health officials, which said due to the lack of tests, only individuals with symptoms were able to be tested.
While most schools can begin practices, there are still some limitations. Those who have not met the benchmarks are unable to have physical contact between players. Even once in full pads, they will be limited to the use of bags and tackling dummies. Once all metrics are green, physical contact is permitted.
Schools that meet all three benchmarks will no longer have to monitor the numbers. The only setback that could occur would stem from positive cases within the program or if state health officials shut down contact sports.
As it stands, only Greenlee and La Paz counties are in green in all three benchmarks and have clearance to begin games as scheduled on Oct. 2. Maricopa County is not one of them.
However, the county is on the right track to be cleared within the next couple of weeks. But even then, the ultimate decision to play or not comes down to districts.
Tucson Unified School District will not have a fall sports season until students are able to return to classrooms. Phoenix Union, the first major school district to announce such a decision, is likely to stand firm and not have fall sports in 2020. Tolleson Union High School District will likely join late in the fall sport season.
All East Valley districts have been given the go-ahead to begin official practices on Monday. Some will even have students in classrooms the same week or the next. Tempe Union High School District has seen its numbers improve drastically in most of its zip codes, which stem into south Phoenix. But since students returned to Arizona State University, which shares the same zip code as Tempe High School, numbers have gone in the wrong direction.
Both Hines and Tempe Union Athletic Director Dave Huffine said there may be options to have numbers specific to ASU removed from their personal metrics.
“I know it’s been a discussion point,” Huffine said. “It’s a concern because the numbers have been trending so very well and they are still pretty good, but now there’s an issue with that zip code for the first time in a long time.”
For now, Tempe Union will remain in phase three of its return-to-play plan, which means no contact. Additionally, the district is requiring the use of masks at all times, even while in helmets.
Hines is confident the season will be able to begin for most, if not all counties as scheduled. However, by nature, some uncertainty remains. He concluded his letter Friday with a plea for schools to follow the recommended guidelines to ensure a football season this fall.
“I am asking all schools to please, adhere to the recommendations of developed by the AIA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and approved by the AIA Executive Board,” Hines wrote. “If we are to play football games, we must all follow recommendations. Numbers are continuing to trend down and we still have a couple of weeks of good data to come.
“Do what we have to do to allow our kids the opportunity to play.”