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Contingencies, concerns abound for Minnesota high schools as fall practice looms
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Contingencies, concerns abound for Minnesota high schools as fall practice looms

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With fall sports scheduled to start practice in mid-August, leaders of the Minnesota State High School League discussed contingency planning Monday amid growing concern that the coronavirus pandemic will curtail the fall season.

Bonnie Spohn Schmaltz, president of the league’s board of directors, said the “natural progression” is a three-pronged approach. The ultimate goal is starting the fall season as scheduled on Aug. 17, though she added, “I think we all realize it can’t be exactly like it was last fall.”

A second option includes sports with fewer competitions, shorter seasons, limited postseason and smaller team rosters.

The third, or “nuclear option” as Prior Lake activities director Russ Reetz called it during a virtual board workshop Monday, is moving some or all fall sports to the spring of 2021. Fall sports include football, volleyball, girls swimming and tennis, and boys and girls soccer and cross-country. Nationally and in Minnesota, some colleges are already moving in this direction.

The high school league’s plan is expected in two weeks, after Gov. Tim Walz and state officials announce their decision on how Minnesota schools will start the 2020-21 school year.

“If we go with distance learning, how will that affect participation?” said Erich Martens, the league’s executive director. “If it’s distance-learning only, can we have activities?’’ Last spring all school activities were canceled when school buildings closed in favor of remote learning.

“If it’s a hybrid, does that reduce the number of practices during a week?” he said.

Minnesota is in line with “the vast majority” of states that Martens said are “planning a typical start but are awaiting more direction” from state officials.

Board member Troy Stein knows firsthand the unpredictable nature of the increasingly pervasive coronavirus.

Stein, Edina’s activities director, said “20 or more” student-athletes in a recent “eight- to nine-day span” tested positive for COVID-19. Stein said the cases were “traced back to one group of males at a cabin who visited another group of friends and brought it back” to teams conducting summer workouts.

Infected athletes represented eight activities: dance team, cheerleading, football, girls hockey and both genders of lacrosse and soccer.

“The symptoms varied,” Stein said. “There were kids who didn’t feel anything to some that were down and out a little.”

Some activities were temporarily shut down, Stein said, adding, “our athletes better appreciate the fact that following the state guidelines when they are with their friends is important to getting back to school and competing on school teams.”

Coaches want their kids back, too. That was the prevailing sentiment league associate director Bob Madison took from the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Association when they met last week.

Football is a conundrum. The sport is a major revenue source for most school districts and among the “higher risk” sports as identified in National Federation of State High School Associations guidelines.

Player safety isn’t the only concern. About 500 football officials are registered for the approaching season, about one-third the typical amount, said Jason Nickleby, high school league coordinator of officials.

Moderate risk sports include soccer, tennis and volleyball, along with relays events in swimming. Cross-country is considered low risk so long as starts are staggered.

Stein’s ideas include a 30% reduction in the number of weeks when sports are competing. In football, that means going from 15 weeks to about 10, and cutting about five or six weeks from the basketball or hockey seasons.

Other board members urged caution. “Activities are an important privilege, not a right,” said Kris DeClerk-Thompson, assistant principal at Buffalo High School. “Is a kid’s life worth what we all want?”

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