On Wednesday (Feb. 10), Governor Kate Brown announced that the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) would be amending its guidance for outdoor contact sports. The revision allows schools to resume outdoor contact sports, including high school football, provided schools follow certain health and safety protocols related to their current county risk level. In addition, participating schools must have returned to at least limited in-person instruction on campus.
In a press release Wednesday, Governor Brown acknowledged it “…has been a difficult year for Oregon’s youth athletes and, as our COVID-19 numbers have dropped, I have been committed to working with our health experts to reevaluate our protocols for sports.”
Brown added that, “School sports play an important role in fostering students’ mental, emotional and physical health. We will proceed with caution, to ensure that teams are following health and safety precautions to protect our athletes, their families and their communities.”
Schools in low- and moderate-risk counties are permitted to begin full-contact practices this Monday (Feb. 15), with competitions beginning the week of March 1. With respect to counties assessed as high- and extreme-risk, schools may opt in to resume outdoor contact sports provided additional protocols are in place.
The press release states, “In such counties, sports organizations must offer on-site responsive testing for symptomatic individuals and close contacts, contact
information for contact tracing, a waiver identifying health and safety risks, and a commitment to isolation and quarantine if exposed to COVID-19.”
In addition, schools in high- and extreme-risk counties must be in compliance with state guidance for COVID-19 testing, and they are also required to have at least limited in-person instruction occurring, “with the goal of achieving hybrid or full in-person instruction for students this school year.”
“It is not lost on me that this decision today will allow high school football to resume, when too many high school classrooms across Oregon remain empty,” said Brown. “To all the parents of student athletes and coaches who have called and emailed me in the last year asking for school sports to resume, I am challenging you now to devote your energy to making sure in-person academics can resume for your kids, too. If our school gyms, fields and weight rooms are to reopen, we owe it to Oregon’s children to make sure our classrooms, libraries and science labs fully reopen as well.”
Following Wednesday’s decision, Siuslaw High School Athletic Director Chris Johnson addressed the Siuslaw School Board in its meeting later that evening, presenting the governor’s updates and explaining what the new guidance would mean for Vikings football moving forward. At the time of the board meeting, Lane County was still considered an extreme-risk county, so Siuslaw High School would be required to proceed using the required health and safety protocols until the county reaches a lower risk category.
“In athletics, we've just been in this spin cycle for a long time. So, today was a really big day… a lot of people went through a lot with the football program over the last couple of years, and had such a great season last year, [they were] really hoping to have an opportunity to play real contact football,” Johnson told the school board. “So, we have some things that we can do to achieve that. There's just some things that have to happen on the district level for us to be in compliance.”
Fortunately, Siuslaw High School already has a contact tracing and screening system in place, as well as the required waiver. The school also has limited in-person instruction occurring, with a plan in place to move to a hybrid model. The final two components in question were on-site testing and the school needing to “opt-in” to the season.
With regard to on-site testing, as Johnson explained, “They are wanting schools to implement an on-site testing policy when and if anybody who is participating in the activity is symptomatic for COVID. The only thing that we need to figure out is the ability to do rapid testing.”
Johnson told board members that there is an Abbot BinaxNOW rapid testing resource for schools that can be used for on-site testing of symptomatic athletes, and that sports organizations will be encouraged to explore partnerships with university systems for testing student athletes.
Siuslaw Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak offered positive news on that front.
“[I’ll] tell you right now that the testing piece is very easy, because the application for the free materials is on my desktop now. Besides having this ready to go for athletics, I have a distinct feeling that serial testing will be coming as a federal program for monitoring,” said Grzeskowiak. “Certainly, again, it would be something that people can opt out of. But to get a baseline test kind of tracking, that would be something that we can do. And then if people do have symptoms, on campus, the ability to test after a potential exposure could shorten their quarantine periods.”
With a fairly straightforward solution to rapid testing being feasible, Johnson brought the conversation back to the final piece of needing the board’s support for the school to opt-in to play football.
“Hopefully, you guys are behind the kids getting back on the field. Like I said before, people are super excited today. Coach [Sam] Johnson is super excited for his kids, because they've been out there working on seven-on-seven and feeling the heat for a long time that this was never a possibility,” Johnson said. “So, today was sort of a Red-Letter day for us. And I know you guys are all very supportive of kids being involved in activities.”
The board voiced a willingness to move forward with opting in for full-contact football this season, providing that Johnson and Grzeskowiak finalize a complete proposal accounting for on-site testing to address the extreme-risk protocols.
As the powers that be continue the necessary work to bring athletics back to schools, one message from Governor Brown’s statement offered sobering but valid advice to those involved.
“To all of Oregon’s high school athletes: I am asking you now to be leaders in your communities. We’ve given you the chance to play, but with that opportunity comes great responsibility,” Brown said Wednesday. “If COVID-19 numbers spike, we may have to shut down contact sports again. When you are off the field, set the example for your peers. Wear a mask, maintain physical distance and avoid social gatherings.”