It's been 4½ months since the IHSAA gymnastics state finals at Ball State, the last time a high school sporting event was held here in Indiana.
It's been long enough that the IHSAA has a new commissioner (Paul Neidig officially took over from Bobby Cox on Saturday), and long enough that the sight of coaches wearing surgical masks has gone from unthinkable to a statewide mandate.
A socially distanced fall season is set to begin with girls golf tournaments Monday, the same day all other fall sports are officially allowed to begin practices. But it's still hard to say how the season will shape up.
“I would say it's a lot like being in a school, like being in a business,” Neidig said last week about what it's like working at the IHSAA at this moment. “We're dealing with the pandemic, we're dealing with things that are not normal. We try to take in as much information we can, and try to make the best decisions that we can based on the information that we have.”
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have delayed the high school sports calendar in some way. This week, neighboring Illinois moved fall team sports, most notably football, to the spring.
On Wednesday, the logistics of a fall season in Indiana were thrown into doubt when the Indianapolis Star reported the Marion County Health Department was ordering contact sports including football, soccer and volleyball to postpone their seasons until Oct. 1. After a conference call with school representatives that afternoon, the health department agreed to hold off on that decision, but the possibility that individual school districts or geographic areas of the state will put their schools under more strenuous restrictions than the rest of the state's schools remains.
“We certainly recognize that in our decision-making structure,” Neidig said. “It's very difficult for us to refrain practice protocols, decisions, because Indiana is such a large geographic area, and COVID has hit each county differently.
“We try to provide support, structure, that each school or each county can work with and create their own system that works for them. I think that's the way we have to look at this.”
Neidig said he has been encouraged by the way the IHSAA training protocols seem to be working since summer workouts were allowed to begin on July 6.
“I'm not aware of any in-program transmission of the virus at this time,” Neidig said. “I'm aware of a lot of cases where kids have picked up the virus at an AAU tournament or on vacation, or they've been exposed to a family member. But I'm not aware of any that's actually been transmitted within the school that's following protocol.”
Neidig said he was aware of a case where seven of nine AAU basketball teammates tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from a tournament, showing that the disease can be easily spread among young athletes if extensive precautions aren't taken.
And those precautions and restrictions may vary from sport to sport.
“I think you have to look at everything independent of each other,” Neidig said. “We know there are some sports that are easy to social distance. Golf is obviously the first one: kids don't share equipment, they play with their own ball, they're outdoors. There's ample opportunity for distance. We know that volleyball's different and football's different. We're doing some things to mitigate the exposure, and we're to continue to do our best, but yeah, we would look at each sport. I really think that would be the responsible thing to do.”
Neidig said Iowa, where the softball and baseball seasons are held during the summer, have given Indiana a road map and a dose of optimism.
“As long as our schools are still in attendance, and they're going, we fully expect that there will be teams that shut down for a little bit because of an exposure or positive case. If that happens, those teams would certainly miss a contest. It would not be a win, it would not be a loss, it'd be considered a 'No Contest.' I would hate to speculate on what that looks like, because it's an unknown,” Neidig said. “Iowa has had some similar issues, they've had some teams that have shut down because of COVID. But they've been able to continue on with the season, and they're going to crown state champions this weekend in softball and baseball.”