Minneapolis North football players took part in a summer workout in June. Photo: Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Will high school fall sports start on time next month in Minnesota?

As that date has approached for 8 million prep athletes across the nation, the answer has been no in 24 states and more are possible, the National Federation of State High School Associations disclosed Wednesday.

The latest to delay the start is Illinois, which approved a modified schedule to spread sports over four seasons, including moving football to spring. On Monday Virginia postponed sports until December. Winter sports there will be followed by fall and spring sports.

Last week the push to delay hit across the border in Wisconsin, where the state's high school board recommended pushing back the start for some sports and asked for a plan to allow schools that opt out of fall competition to offer those sports in the spring.

In a sign of the fluid situation tied to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of states with fall sports delays was 24 when the organization hosted a national media webinar earlier this week. Then on Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gave high schools the go-ahead to start contact sports, knocking it down to 23 until Illinois took action Wednesday afternoon and became the seventh state to delay the start of football.

Minnesota is among the 26 that are still aiming to start on time, which is Aug. 17 for fall practice. But schools and athletes here and in most of those states are like hopeful playoff teams: They don't exactly control their destiny.

The Minnesota State High School League needs help from Gov. Tim Walz, who on Thursday is expected to disclose back-to-school plans for the upcoming school year. Options range from a full return to school, continued distance learning or a hybrid of both approaches.

The league has a return-to-play task force poised to incorporate that decision into its recommendations, which the league's board is expected to consider on Tuesday.

Whereas the league canceled all spring sports when schools closed and shifted to distance learning, ideas suggesting a more nuanced approach have surfaced for returning to sports this year. That could mean playing some sports such as tennis but delaying others, such as football and soccer, with more bodily contact. Other ideas have included fewer competitions, shorter seasons, limited postseason and smaller team rosters.

While Wisconsin and some states are delaying fall sports by a few weeks, several are not restarting until December or January, the national high schools group said, owing to concerns about current levels of COVID-19 cases.

Among states imposing more significant delays, California is combing three seasons into two starting this winter. Nevada will retain its three-season format but will conduct all sports from January into May. Washington will divide its sports offerings into four seasons throughout the year and push higher-risk sports to the spring.

"In most cases where students are back in school, there has been a phased-in approach, beginning with lower-risk sports such as cross country, golf and tennis,'' the high school federation said. "Longer delays are more likely with higher-risk sports such as football, and in the case of five states (California, New Mexico, Nevada, Washington and Virginia) and the District of Columbia, football will not be played until the winter or spring seasons in 2021.

Noting that the delays have been announced in states from the southeast part of the country to the far west, the group said, "In the ever-changing world of COVID-19, more states may ultimately delay school sports.''