This summer full of hypotheticals is facing the final countdown.
The start of high school sports in Missouri is less than a month away, but even as the Aug. 10 start date for preseason practices continues to near for fall teams, there remains a high level of uncertainty surrounding what athletics may look like.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association is still planning on starting fall seasons, including football, on time, and the organization released new guidelines Wednesday for a return to competition after the coronavirus pandemic brought the sports world to a screeching halt this past March, ending MSHSAA’s Class 4 and Class 5 state basketball tournaments before they concluded and ultimately canceling all spring seasons in the state.
MSHSAA has since shifted its focus to ensuring championship sites for fall athletics, and school districts across the state began summer workouts and exhibitions in hopes of having some sort of normalcy in the fall. But less than 30 days from the start of fall camp for football teams across the state, there is one constant:
There are still more questions than answers.
Columbia Public Schools athletic director David Egan knows that better than anyone. He took over as the district’s head athletic administrator July 1, and since then, every day has been dominated by evaluating scenarios and facing questions revolving around COVID-19.
CPS resumed limited in-person athletic activities June 1 under new social distancing and cleanliness measures to ensure safety for all participants. That original plan, which was divided into three phases to align with the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services’ reopening plan for the area, went on without a hitch until last Friday.
Phase Two, which was originally set to expire later this month, was extended to Aug. 10 due to an increased number of active cases throughout Boone County. That announcement from the local health department came days after Columbia passed a citywide mask ordinance.
The extension of the local Phase Two of reopening did little to affect CPS’ summer contact plan, according to Egan. The extension only impacts CPS athletics from July 24 to 31, as the district is scheduled to hold its no-contact period from Aug. 1 to 10. The only loss of not advancing to Phase Three sooner is contact sports such as basketball and football are not allowed to hold scrimmages or 7-on-7 games.
However, Egan and the Missouri Football Coaches Association were already wary of such events taking place as the calendar neared the potential July 24 threshold.
The MFCA released a statement Tuesday addressing its recommendations for the beginning of the 2020 football season. The statement included guidance on keeping all activities, including practices and scrimmages, in-house for the remainder of the summer.
The MFCA also recommended eliminating all preseason jamborees.
Battle is scheduled to host a jamboree Aug. 21 with Hickman, Rock Bridge and Jefferson City, a quartet of schools in the newly formed Central Missouri Activities Conference.
Egan planned to hold a meeting with school-level CPS athletic directors Alex Huck (Battle), Jack Rubenstein (Hickman) and Michael McGinty (Rock Bridge) along with head football coaches Thursday afternoon to discuss what the preseason could look like.
However, Egan already has his personal view on the scheduled scrimmages.
"I can only speak for myself, but I think there is a lot of merit and value to (the MFCA) recommendation and it’s something that schools should be strongly considering," he said. "I’m of the belief that we should probably try to remove as many unnecessary risks as possible. To me, participating in a preseason jamboree is probably an unnecessary risk. I hate to see a situation where through participation in that event, someone or multiple people contract the virus and then you jeopardize your ability to play your first opponent the next week."
Thursday’s meeting was to include discussions on whether or not to hold scrimmages, but ultimately the decision could be out of the schools’ hands.
Egan remains steadfast in CPS working in tandem with the local health department.
Yes, the plan as of now is for CPS football teams to begin practices Aug. 10 and play Week 1. But things could change between now and late August.
"We are going to follow the guidance of the Boone County Health Department," Egan said. "As of right now, if Boone County indicates that athletic activity can occur under certain guidelines, we’re going to follow that. That doesn’t mean that at some point, we as a school district evaluate things and make a decision that we feel is best for our kids, staff and community that goes beyond what the health department orders."
Egan is in talks with school-level athletic directors each day on matters concerning options for each sports program this fall. Nothing is off the table in initial planning, including canceling games against teams in communities with heightened cases of COVID-19 or constructing a more regionalized schedule. The CPS schools are entering their first year in the CMAC along with Jefferson City, Capital City, Helias and Smith-Cotton. The new league could prove to be crucial should CPS have to rebuild schedules due to virus concerns.
"Right now our plan is to play our schedule as they are currently scheduled," Egan said. "However, there are conversations about what is contingency plan B, C, and D. Certainly, the idea of altering our schedule to be more regional is talked about. Just as tons of other scenarios are also being talked about."
Meanwhile, as CPS and school districts across the state plan for the fall, MSHSAA released a set of guidelines and recommendations Wednesday.
The eight-page document includes similarities to how MSHSAA handled COVID-19 in the spring. A statewide closure of schools would lead to a cancellation of fall athletics, and if school districts move to only-online schooling, those schools would not hold athletics.
"That continues to be our message," said Jason West, MSHSAA communications director. "As long as schools are offering in-person classes, then sports and activities should still be an opportunity for those students to participate in. But if it gets to a level where a school does not feel they can have in-person classes, then they shouldn’t need to worry about sports and activities."
Along with potential causes for a canceled season, MSHSAA stated that a season could continue even if some school districts aren’t participating.
"If a majority of schools are open for in-person learning, efforts will be made to administer a regular season and postseason for those schools/students who are permitted to do so based on the guidelines of the local and state health departments," the document stated.
MSHSAA surveyed its member schools last week to prepare for that hypothetical situation. Some of the questions revolved around the number of schools needed to hold postseason events and when to consider canceling a sport or championship based on lack of school participation.
MSHSAA also outlined in the document its guidelines for health screenings, symptoms and positive tests, streamlining a uniformed procedure for member schools.
Temperature checks and screenings are mandatory before participating in any athletic event.
Any of the following symptoms will result in an athlete, coach or official being removed from a practice or game: Fever (temperature higher than 100.4), cough, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, sore throat, new loss of smell or taste and vomiting or diarrhea.
A 14-day quarantine period, documentation of a negative COVID-19 test or written clearance by a health care provider are the only ways to return.
A positive coronavirus test would start a 14-day exclusion from any athletic activity for that individual and anyone in close or direct contact with the individual.
Other states have conceded to delaying the start of prep athletics in hopes of a safe return. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order Wednesday delays the opening of schools in that state until after Labor Day, thus postponing all high school sports.
Missouri is still operating under a Aug. 10 start for fall practices, but the clock is ticking.