UHSAA unanimously approves on-time start for fall sports, but some regions may have to play it by ear

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Park City and Sky View play in the 4A State Championship football title, Nov. 22, 2019, at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

There will be high school sports this fall in Utah, but it won’t be business as usual.

The Utah High School Activities Association’s board of trustees voted unanimously Thursday to go ahead with fall sports as originally scheduled. The vote comes one day after the state reached another daily record in COVID-19 cases, and about three months after the association canceled spring sports.

“We’ve made a big decision here,” said board member Jerre Holmes, who represents superintendents for 1A and 2A schools.

The board’s rationale for moving forward with the fall sports schedule hinged significantly on whether schools would be open. If they are — that’s the current plan, but some parents oppose it — students should be able to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports.

Rob Cuff, executive director of the UHSAA, said principals favored starting fall sports on time as schools reopened. He mentioned that a big reason for canceling sports in the spring was schools suspended in-person learning at that time.

“We are very much connected, as our board shows, with our schools as educators,” Cuff said. “School sports become very much of a part of the school program and the school day.”

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that students, faculty, staff and visitors of K-12 schools will be required to wear masks.

But while the fall season for seven sports, including football, will go as scheduled, the board left room for adjustments. Not every county in the state is at the same color-coded risk level. And some ares, like Salt Lake City, are still in “orange,” or moderate risk. A few rural areas, are in “green,” or new normal risk.

Every school will need to work in accordance with their local health departments. The potential variety of statuses could mean schools will at times need to play their schedules by ear.

“We’re going to have to educate our coaches that this is going to be a hectic season,” Brighton High principal Tom Sherwood said. “There’s going to be a lot of unknowns. It’s going to be messy.”

Cuff said team’s won’t be penalized if they choose not to play a certain game on their schedule. If that situation occurs, the result will be treated as a “no contest” rather than a forfeit so it won’t negatively affect a team’s ranking.

Cuff also said out-of-state travel is not recommended and teams are encouraged to travel as geographically local as possible.

The UHSAA put together its own guidelines for best practices about what the “orange,” “yellow” and “green” risk levels mean specially for sports, borrowing from the NCAA, the National Federation of State High School Associations, and various states from around the country.

But the board stopped short of having a blanket recommendation for all of Utah.

“We want to be uniform, but we also want to pay respect to local control because one size does not fit all,” Cuff said.

One point of discussion was what schools would do about allowing spectators to watch games. Due to the different venue sizes at each school, the UHSAA cannot practically make a recommendation as to a number of fans, and social distancing may be difficult to enforce.

Some schools are already implementing solutions to problems they may face once fall sports get going. Sherwood said he’s implemented digital ticketing for events at Brighton in which spectators have to enter their name, email and phone number. But he hasn’t figured out how to separate fans in bleachers yet.

Cuff said athletes will be allowed to decide whether they play sports, just like they have that ability when it comes to in-person or virtual learning.

“This gives parents and students the opportunity to choose,” Cuff said. “I think that’s a good thing right now.”