SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois High School Association announced a new sports schedule following new public health guidelines issued by the state.
The IHSA will shorten seasons and move football, boys soccer and girls volleyball to the spring season, among other changes.
Tennis, golf and other “lower risk” school sports would be allowed to compete this fall, under guidelines published by the Illinois State Board of Education, Department of Public Health and Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Other sports, including football and wrestling, are deemed higher-risk and would only have been allowed no-contact practices.
In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said it wasn’t an easy decision to put more restrictions on youth sports, but he pointed to recent coronavirus outbreaks among professional athletes.
“When the … multi-billion dollar sports leagues with multi-million dollar athletes are struggling to protect their players, it’s obvious that there won’t be enough protection for kids on our school playing fields,” Pritzker said.
The rules cover scholastic, recreational, private leagues and park district programs. They are not for collegiate or professional leagues.
The guidelines lay out different levels of activity based on the determined risk of the sport and the spread of COVID-19, and sports could move from one level to the next, depending on public health conditions.
The four levels of play range from no-contact practices all the way up to tournaments and team meets. No sports would be allowed at that last level when the rules take effect August 15.
The IHSA announced boys and girls golf, girls tennis, cross country and girls swimming and diving will begin on August 10 as scheduled, but competition is limited to schools in the same general area.
IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said it’s not clear when plans might be adjusted in the future if COVID-19 cases spike or if they drop significantly.
“We haven’t been shared the metrics they are looking at that will let us bump from one level in these different risk levels of sports,” Anderson said. “Maybe when we get that direct connect with IDPH we can maybe get into that conversation and know more.”
Anderson said the IHSA has had conversations with Deputy Governor Jesse Ruiz, but not with the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Sports in the “lower risk” category, including baseball and softball, must follow safety measures to qualify as “lower risk” under the rules. For example, baseball players must stand 6-feet apart in dugout areas and bleachers.
The full guidelines are on Illinois’ coronavirus website.
Anderson said the IHSA had planned to outline its changes prior to Pritzker’s announcement, however the governor moved up his news conference. Anderson said he’s confident the IDPH will approve of the association’s plans.
Anderson cautioned if COVID-19 cases spike in the fall more sports could get shifted to spring and winter sports could be further delayed or put in jeopardy.
Anderson said much of the IHSA’s plans remain fluid, including who can attend sporting events. He said that will be especially challenging for indoor sports.
“The gathering of 50 (people) inside is challenging enough and then when you add spectators it’s nearly impossible,” Anderson said, referring to the cap on gatherings allowed under Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan. “We are going to have to have some increased levels during that time frame to provide for spectators or a lot of us are going to be viewing contests online.” Anderson said the IHSA will also have to work with its state tournament hosts to see if they can reschedule championship events, if they are able to happen.
The announcements about high school sports come as Illinois continues to see a surge in COVID-19 cases. Pritzker warned Wednesday that the Metro-East St. Louis region was getting close to triggering more restrictions on bars, restaurants and other activities as its test positivity rate continues to climb.
“Should that region continue in this direction, I’ll be making additional announcements related to the specifics of the reversal,” Pritzker said.
Mary Hansen is a reporter for NPR Illinois in Springfield. Eric Stock is a reporter for WGLT in Normal.