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One game has already been canceled. How will Utah’s high school football coaches navigate another season in the COVID-19 pandemic?

Low vaccination rates and the rise of the Delta variant have some concerned that more cancellations are inevitable.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

Aaron Whitehead’s stomach sank when the email hit his inbox.

The Olympus High School football coach read the message from one of Bountiful High’s coaches asking where his team might be able to find a game against another opponent after an opening-week contest was canceled. Bountiful’s scheduled opponent, the Highland Rams, just had a player test positive for COVID-19.

Whitehead thought back to the difficulty of last season, when every football program in Utah took precaution after precaution and still several teams couldn’t play because players or coaches contracted the virus. His program fortunately wasn’t affected, but he sympathized with those who struggled and felt pride about being able to finish the season.

“It was just a weird period,” Whitehead said. “And the fact that everybody was able to have a season and have success — all teams across the state of Utah — it shows a little bit about the character of the people of the state of Utah, the character of the state through the game of football.”

But what felt like a distant memory over the summer came roaring back to start the prep football season. The game between Highland and Bountiful was the only one canceled last week. So far heading into Week 2, no cancellations have been reported.

The canceled game points to a harsh reality that every football team — and every fall sport, for that matter — will have to face: With the Delta variant causing coronavirus cases to surge, particularly among the unvaccinated, the likelihood of more cancellations remains. There continues to be a debate over whether to mandate masks in K-12 schools, or whether parents should vaccinate their children.

A Salt Lake City School District spokesperson said last week that the game was canceled because the vaccination rate among teenagers in the district was only 42%, and thus there likely weren’t enough vaccinated players on Highland’s team to avoid quarantine due to exposure. Only 38% of Utahns ages 12-18 have been fully vaccinated, according to Utah Department of Health data.

Highland coach Kautai Olevao confirmed that the bulk of his players are not vaccinated, and said he was told that if enough of his players were, they would have still been able to play last Friday.

It seems his players learned from that.

“I think this has been an eye-opener for them,” Olevao said. “So some of them did decide to go and start that process of getting vaccinated.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Football coach Kautai Olevao directs practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

Olevao said he has encouraged his players get vaccinated. But he stressed that he cannot force them, and the decision is solely left to individual families.

The Rams didn’t have any games get canceled last season. But after last week, the possibility of it happening again is on Olevao’s mind. He said when the team is not doing an activity that requires players to be in close proximity, they are separated. The team also wears masks indoors, he said.

“We’re trying to do what we can, control what we can control, and let’s just get through [Friday] without any bad news,” Olevao said. “That’s where we’re at at this point.”

Olevao said his players got tested Wednesday and everyone tested negative.

Dave Peck and his Bingham Miners know what it’s like to be in Olevao and Highland’s shoes. They had their opening-week game canceled last year after three Bingham players tested positive. He remembers the days when players had their temperatures checked before every practice and when only 50 players were allowed to dress on game days.

When he saw the news about the Highland-Bountiful game, he was concerned. “That’s not good,” he thought. But he also expressed disappointment that one positive test led to the cancellation of a game.

“I hope we’re past the point where we’re going to shut down the games and the whole team when one person gets it,” Peck said. “I think life needs to go on. At least in my mind, I think for these kids, we need to continue to do what we can to make it as normal as possible.”

Peck said he held a meeting with parents two weeks ago during which they asked him his opinion on COVID-19 vaccinations. His response was he is not even going to mention it because it’s a decision for individual families, and he does not want to feel responsible if he encourages it and a complication arises that is attributed to the vaccine.

“I’m not going to have that on my conscience,” Peck said. “I’m just not.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Football practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

Peck offered that he is vaccinated, as are his children who are in the medical profession. And with cases surging in Utah, he’s concerned that more game cancellations are imminent.

“When that’s the case, it’s just a matter of time before it hits our football programs,” Peck said.

Brighton had two games get canceled last season, but one was able to be rescheduled. Coach Justin Hemm said there was one week the team was missing 15 players due to exposure alone.

But Hemm isn’t worried that the season will get shut down like spring sports were last year. The team is, however, still monitoring symptoms and separating position groups on the team.

As far as vaccinations are concerned, Hemm said he has not actively encouraged or discouraged players receiving them in order to respect people’s opinions and privacy.

“We’ll try to control the things more that we can as far as just the hygiene and staying home with symptoms and all that other good stuff,” Hemm said.

Matt Rickards, coach of the Kearns team that had its playoff run ended by a bout with COVID-19, said he was disappointed to see the Highland-Bountiful game canceled.

“Being on both ends of it last year reminded me of how grateful I am that we get to play,” Rickards said.

It remains to be seen how the football season will play out amid the coronavirus and the Delta variant spreading, especially among unvaccinated people, many of whom are younger. Whitehead was adamant about the choice he made to get himself, his wife and his children vaccinated, saying they “jumped at the chance.”

In the end, Whitehead just wants every athlete, coach, teacher and student to have a full season and academic year.

“I want to keep coaching football,” Whitehead said. “I want to keep teaching school. I want my kids to keep participating in extracurricular activities. I don’t want to ever see another season shut down like it was a year ago last spring.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Football coach Kautai Olevao directs practice at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.

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