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SDHSAA panel searching for best path as fall seasons draw near

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Platte-Geddes' Jackson Neuman (15) breaks free from a tackle attempt by Parkston's Gordon Seppala (32) during a game on Oct. 19, 2019 in Parkston. (Matt Gade / Republic)

PIERRE -- With less than a month before the first high school sports practices are scheduled to begin, the South Dakota High School Activities Association is still working to piece together a proposal to safely return to action.

The SDHSAA convened a 20-person committee aimed at tackling the unprecedented task of holding a sports season during the COVID-19 pandemic, with another meeting scheduled for Thursday. Individual school districts are also still determining what the school year will entail when students return in the fall, which tasks the committee with navigating a variety of factors.

In attempting to come up with a plan that could encompass the entire state, the first goal was to create as diverse a committee as possible, drawing on administrators from large and small schools and in different areas of the state, as well as medical professionals to compose proper precautions when practices for cheer, dance and soccer begin on Aug. 3.

“There’s a lot of pieces that we’re trying to navigate together, and hopefully, what it comes down to is what the best answer is for kids,” SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand said. “We know all the positives and wonderful things interscholastic sports brings for kids and we want to make those things possible, but be responsible given the current situation we find ourselves in.”

In May, the SDHSAA released a three-phase, non-binding summer guideline based on the National Federation of State High School Associations recommendations. Many of the schools following the plan are currently in Phase Two, which includes groups of 50 people outdoors.

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Meanwhile, the SDHSAA is monitoring non-school activities such as the prep-aged baseball season in the state, as well as how the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association completed its region and state rodeo events. Sanford Health, which is one of the SDHSAA’s corporate sponsors, recently began hosting AAU basketball tournaments at the Pentagon in late June.

Most high school-sanctioned sports in the United States are currently shut down or going through non-contact activities, but the Iowa High School Athletic Association is currently hosting its high school baseball season.

According to a July 4 report by ESPN, 25 of the 338 schools have been impacted by COVID-19, as well as 20 softball teams. An outbreak results in a 14-day quarantine period in which that given team’s season is suspended for that period of time.

“It’s a reference point -- ‘Here’s some ideas that different people are trying,’” Krogstrand said. “It’s something that we can learn from, see how it goes and use as a reference point. … Baseball kind of falls in that low-to-medium (risk) range and there are some things you can do for spacing, where that’s not a realistic concept when you talk about cheer and dance or football.”

Balancing state and local control

While the main focus during the early discussions have been centered around how to create a safe environment for players and coaches, there also must be a plan for fans and officials.

Krogstrand said discussions as to whether events would be held with fans have been minimal thus far, as have measures such as screening and mask requirements if events were to include fans.

“Right now, it’s a discussion about whether it’s safe and reasonable for the activities to happen,” Krogstrand said. “We kind of have to arrive at that decision and those parameters and the spectator side is a piece of that. First we have to make that decision about what’s reasonable to go with.”

One of the key decisions regarding spectators will be how much power is left to individual counties and districts to determine the right course of action and what is mandated by the state. Gov. Kristi Noem left districts in charge of their back-to-school visions during her “Back to normal” plan in April, but some counties have been more affected by COVID-19 than others.

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Minnehaha, Pennington, Beadle, Lincoln and Brown counties have combined for 5,541 of the state’s 7,163 confirmed cases and 85 of the 98 COVID-19-related deaths. Meanwhile, Harding, Jones, Perkins and Potter Counties have yet to report a positive case.

Platte-Geddes Superintendent Joel Bailey, who is a member of the committee, expressed a desire for uniform regulations and a certain amount of local control. When it came to screening of coaches and players, Bailey said, “The discussions that took place during the initial meeting revolved around a standard procedure for screening the athletes and coaches. Having a standard procedure would ensure that all districts are operating under the same procedures.”

When it came to whether spectators should be screened upon entering an event, particularly one held indoors, Bailey said, “That decision is still up in the air. In my opinion, this may come down to a local decision for each district.”

Krogstrand said conversations are still on-going about striking the proper balance, but the SDHSAA typically offers baseline rules and a school can impose more stringent rules if it chooses. But, one of the difficult questions about local control could come over a school with few COVID-19 cases traveling to one with a larger pool of cases.

“The point of the committee is to have that buy-in and collective that these are the bare-minimum rules,” Krogstrand said. “Certainly, any school district has the right to enact stronger enforcement or more strict rules if they so choose. They may happen this fall as we get into athletics, given the nature of what some see as fit, responsible and reasonable to do.”

Related Topics: CORONAVIRUS
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