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High School Sports Will Play Ball This Fall

high school football game
With the exception of districts in South Florida hit hardest by COVID-19, sports can begin in high schools Aug. 24 following a Friday vote by the FL High School Athletic Association.

Under a normal schedule, fall sports practices would have started last month, with the regular season beginning August 20.

High school athletes will get a chance to compete on the field this fall after all. A contentious vote came amidst concerns about playing contact sports during the pandemic.

The Florida High School Athletic Association voted 11-5 Friday to allow students to play sports beginning August 24. But any schools that have qualms about playing because of spiking coronavirus numbers will be allowed to opt out of the state playoff series by September 18.

The motion, which was made in Gainesville hotel, passed by a split vote. Other options that were considered included delaying games until October or November.

FHSAA Board members agreed to begin games the first week of September, which is a week earlier than what was proposed at the group's last meeting.

Under a normal schedule, fall sports practices would have started last month, with the regular season beginning August 20.

Board member Susan Tortora of Montverde said she has received about 300 emails, with almost all of them asking the board to set a date to begin play.

"Our people in this state are crying out for a date," she said. "These are parents, these are coaches and so on that want their kids to get out there and play sports. Now I agree that this is a worrisome time. But kids are going to do what kids are going to do."

Jaime and Tami Kent, parents of a football player at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, spoke during the public comment period that preceded the vote. The couple started an online petition that got more than 40,000 signatures urging the FHSAA to allow sports.

"Let these kids play. Students need sports for their mental, physical, emotional well-being," said Jaime Kent.

But board member Chris Patricca, who serves on the Lee County School Board, said schools will have enough to deal with just trying to keep students healthy.

"Throwing sports on top of that, if feels like it's setting us up for failure," she said. "We can't do it all correctly. We don't have the bandwidth, we don't have the resources, the additional safety measures that have to be put in place."

Members of the FHSAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee - doctors, athletic trainers, and other medical professionals from around the state - recommended caution. 

SMAC chair, Dr. Jennifer Maynard of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, told directors that, while the numbers are improving around Florida, only one county in the state - Hamilton - is beneath the five percent positivity test rate recommended by experts for reopening.

"Until the virus is given the respect it deserves, by introducing sports, it adds fuel to the fire," said Maynard.

But board member Chalmus Thomas voted in favor of the plan, saying it's time for the country to move on.

"Of all the emails that I've received, I don't know of any parent that's not thinking of safety," he said. "I can't think of any communities that aren't thinking of safety. I don't think there's any superintendents today that's not thinking about safety first. But we can't sit in a shell."

However, school districts in South Florida hit hardest by the coronavirus will likely not be playing during the fall. Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties will all offer online classes only at the beginning of the fall semester.

While districts and counties that pull out of the state series will have the ability to work with the FHSAA to put together their own regional calendars, the Miami-Dade County School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to look at pulling its schools from the association.

Board members also voted 10-6 to make a COVID-19 waiver available to schools. It will not be required or recommended for the students to sign them to be able to play in the fall. All coaches will be required to watch an instructional video about the coronavirus before their season starts.

High school sports played in the fall include football, cross country, golf, swimming and volleyball.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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