Winter Haven - Bartow football 2019

With each passing day last week, the probability that the Florida High School Athletic Association’s fall season would start in July faded. Eventually those hopes disappeared.

A chronology of events proved how fluid the situation remains as the state of Florida deals with the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

The FHSAA is not unlike local public school districts and private schools who continue to wrestle with a difficult question: How do they make the necessary sports venues accessible and the playing fields safe for all participants?

On July 21, Polk County Public Schools provided an update that it would “postpone practices for fall sports in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Practices for football, girls’ volleyball, cross country, swimming, diving and golf were to begin on July 27. Physical conditioning for student-athletes will continue.”

“We’re delaying the start of all fall sport practices to further evaluate the situation,” PCPS Senior Coordinator of Athletics Dan Talbot said in the statement. “We will be working closely with our surrounding counties to develop a plan to safely return to fall sport practices and competitions. We will keep everyone updated as soon as that information becomes available.”

The previous day – July 20 – the FHSAA’s Board of Directors voted down a proposal from the Fall Sports Task Force that would have pushed back fall practice and provided schools the flexibility to choose staggered start dates. Instead, the board voted in favor of a plan allowing athletic programs that could not begin the season on July 27 (the first allowable start date for practices) the opportunity to opt out of the fall state playoffs and continue with regular-season games through the end of the state championships in December.

Former Lake Region High head football coach Bobby Johns, who is the football coach and athletic director at Wewahitchka High School in the Panhandle area, made the aforementioned motion whereby member schools could practice and compete at their discretion. Schools also would have had to declare their intention to participate in the state series or not by a certain date.

But three days later – two days after Polk County Public Schools announced its intention to delay the start of the 2020 fall season – the FHSAA’s Board of Directors reversed course and approved a motion (with 11 yes votes) from Citrus County school board member Douglas Dodd postponing the start of the fall season to Aug. 24 while still permitting summer conditioning/workouts.

The vote also called for Executive Director George Tomyn, FHSAA staff and the association’s various advisory committees to formulate a plan ahead of an in-person board meeting prior to Aug. 17.

Polk County opened school facilities for conditioning on June 15 with several safety guidelines in place. Talbot is also a member of the FHSAA’s Athletic Directors Advisory Committee.

Last Thursday’s Board of Directors meeting took a closer look at recommendations put forth by the FHSAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC), as Florida’s daily new coronavirus cases periodically trended over 10,000 this month.

Dr. Jennifer Roth Maynard of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville Beach reiterated concerns to the board over current positivity rates in counties throughout the state and how they related to high-risk fall sports such as football and volleyball.

“SMAC has a done great job putting together a report, but data has changed. Guidelines are changing,” Jacob Oliva, Chancellor of Public Schools at the Florida Department of Education, said during the July 23 meeting. “There’s still an opportunity to provide clarity in this report and I would be of the consensus or the standing that if we were to take action today right now to try to adopt and implement this plan, I think we can get a better plan if we just hit the pause button for a couple weeks.”

The idea behind pushing back the FHSAA’s 2020 fall sports calendar better aligns with reopening dates for several county districts. Polk County Public Schools recently delayed the start of the 2020-21 school year until Aug. 24 at the earliest, while offering three learning formats (Campus Learning, Campus eSchool and Polk Virtual School) to parents and guardians.

Back in March, the FHSAA left open the possibility of completing the 2020 spring high school sports season. But it never materialized when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced just over a month later that K-12 schools would remain closed for the remainder of the academic year.

The FHSAA now finds itself trying to conduct the fall season as schools prepare to reopen.