After more than two months without high school sports, the Minnesota State High School League on Wednesday provided the first concrete step toward possibly resuming competition when it approved a June 15 starting date for summer training by coaches and athletes.
The decision, pending final approval Monday by the league’s board of directors, likely will bring clarity to what’s allowed this summer across Minnesota high school sports. Achieving clarity for the next season — the fall sports calendar — will take more time.
The summer waiver period, when coaches can work with their athletes, had previously been set to start on Monday. It remains scheduled to end Aug. 7, with fall activities scheduled to begin Aug. 17. League Executive Director Erich Martens said the league “will look at the results of the summer programs” and follow the guidelines set by Gov. Tim Walz before considering any delays or cancellation of fall activities because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With summer coming into focus and fall still hazy, metro-area activities and athletic directors said in recent conversations with the Star Tribune that they are moving forward with plans for fall athletics. The reason, in short: It’s easier to plan now and pause later, if necessary, than to sprint at the end of summer.
“We’re moving forward as if we’re going to have a season,” said Antony Fisher, athletic director for Minneapolis Public Schools. “We’ve found it’s much easier to cancel on short notice than to schedule facilities, officials, those sorts of things.”
Most stressed that planning doesn’t equate to an expectation of competition this fall, acknowledging there are still too many variables to project that far in advance.
The MSHSL has taken its cues from the Minnesota Department of Health and the governor, but the situation’s fluidity has kept it from devising a definitive timeline for the possible resumption of activities. That unpredictability trickles down to athletic offices, which fall back on normal routines with the understanding that things could change quickly.
“It might be helpful for planning to know what fall practices and sports would look like,” said Troy Urdahl, St. Anthony athletic director, “but that decision can’t be made in May when we don’t know what the next two, three months will look like.”
Last week Martens addressed more than 300 activities directors via video call and expressed hope for a regular start to fall sports.
Some concerns were shared regarding possible June starts to the summer training at high school facilities run by coaches. Martens stressed that such activities are outside of the league’s direct purview, that schools have the discretion to determine when they begin, and that many schools might need more time to develop plans for preventive measures such as screening, temperature checks and cleaning of facilities.
Martens said “schools always have the ability to be more restrictive” than the guidelines. He told those in the video meeting that schools “have the opportunity to choose your own opening date” later than June 15 as needed for summer training.
At many schools, closed campuses would affect such workouts. For example, Blake has closed down its campus until at least July 6. Elk River’s school buildings are closed until the end of June. At Edina, the plan is to open outdoor spaces June 1, but a date for reopening indoors facilities has yet to be finalized. Similar restrictions are in place at other schools.
Having a set starting date is still far removed from actual training, Elk River football coach Steve Hamilton wrote in a text message.
“We will not be doing anything [other] than Google meets and possibly working on outside speed work,” he stated. “We can start on June 15, but can’t throw a ball to someone, can’t hand one off. There’s still a limit of 10 [people].”
For now, activities directors are fielding an endless stream of questions from parents and athletes wondering what the future holds.
“You can’t believe the questions that come all the time,” Rosemount activities/athletic director Mike Manning said. “I’m empathetic, and I tell them, ‘When I can, I will get you a response.’ ”
Blake AD Nick Rathmann said most of his callers have been understanding with the lack of predictability: “Parents have been respectful of the situation and are OK with pivoting when things change.”
When, or rather if, a fall sports season is approved, most agree changes are to be expected. Many sports are attempting to devise a plan for resuming play while adhering to health department guidelines about social distancing and sanitation.
For some districts having access to facilities is a concern. Minneapolis schools use a number of nondistrict owned sites, such as ball fields, tennis courts at city parks, and municipal golf courses. The Minneapolis Park Board recently reopened the parks on a limited basis, restricting gatherings of more than 10 people and requiring users to maintain social distancing.
“The MSHSL needs to address equity,” Fisher said. “For example, if our tennis players can’t practice, but opponents have the ability to train, that puts us at a disadvantage.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for most activities directors will be convincing some parents, athletes, coaches and even themselves that it’s safe to resume play.
“The thing we fear the most is ‘Are we going to make things worse if we hurry back out there?’ ” asked Hopkins’ AD Dan Johnson. “We can’t really know short of testing every person, disinfecting every soccer ball, every football, every handrail. There’s going to be some apprehension about going back.”
Johnson said he expects to see “a decrease in participation’’ when play does resume. “Some people are going to be uncomfortable signing that participation slip.”
Until a plan for resuming competition is firmed up, activities directors will continue with a business-as-usual approach.
“Part of the frustrations of not having information available is that it’s no one’s fault,” Urdahl said. “Everything is based off of, and triggered by, government announcements. We all just need to be very understanding and appreciate any information we get about the next steps.”