LINCOLN — With crossed fingers, the Nebraska School Activities Association announced Monday it intends to go ahead with fall sports.
First practices for football, volleyball, cross country, girls golf, boys tennis and softball are set to begin Aug. 10. First contests in some sports are Aug. 20.
“As long as the governor’s office, the Department of Education and local health departments are saying it’s safe to do so, we’re going to try to move forward as best we can, and if that’s still the case come August, we’re going to try to go ahead," NSAA Executive Director Jay Bellar told The World-Herald on Monday. “I wanted to get something out there so people at least can start planning.”
Bellar said the decision came from his office, with the NSAA board of directors aware of it. In March when the pandemic was beginning, the board authorized Bellar and the NSAA staff to be decision-makers during the outbreak.
Among the reasons for going ahead with sports, he said, is the governor’s office and NDE advocating for in-person learning when schools open in August. He acknowledged the NSAA is aware the teachers unions in the state’s two largest school districts, Omaha and Lincoln, are opposed to in-person learning this fall.
The Omaha Education Association, which represents 2,800 Omaha Public Schools staff members, issued a statement Friday asking for a remote learning environment when school resumes in August. The statement specifically cited the number of students involved in extra-curricular activities testing positive for COVID-19 as a reason to continue with safety measures outlined by medical experts.
Bellar said since no one knows what the health conditions a month from now could be, the NSAA could have to back up, but that’s better “than saying right away that we can’t do something.”
As of Monday, Nebraska had 26 counties with no new COVID-19 cases in the past 14 days and 16 had one each. The state joins Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Missouri going ahead with fall sports. Kansas is considering starting late. Colorado has submitted a return-to-play plan to its governor.
Last week Bellar and Nate Neuhaus, an NSAA assistant director, met with football coaches from around Omaha. Plenty of what-ifs were brought up.
“They just want to play football and they're willing to do what we have to do to get it done," Bellar said.
What happens if a team member in any sport tests positive for COVID-19? Is one case enough to quarantine the entire team? Bellar said local health departments are talking to each other and he hopes a statewide standard is a result.
“We use the example of if Grand Island Northwest was going to play Skutt, and they’re in different health department (districts), what criteria would we use to make sure of an equal playing field when they do that," Bellar said. “They say if people are wearing masks when they're not competing, and if they're doing the social distancing and following all the guidelines, contact tracing goes a lot faster and it’s a lot easier on teams and they don't have to sit out the whole team.”
He said the NSAA wants, and financially needs, to have state championships. Some state associations such as California and Michigan have unveiled nontraditional championship schedules.
“To say we're going to let (schools) do stuff and not have a championship, that makes me a little nervous because I don't know how long (the NSAA) could survive," he said. “I just hope we can have something for our kids because I think you look at the other side, the social and emotional health of young kids, and boy, this is a blow to them.
“We might think that's not a big deal but I really do think it is. But I know our ultimate goal on the other side, too, is that COVID can be awfully dangerous and we don't want to put kids in more risk than we have to.”
In Monday’s announcement, the NSAA said: “To be able to start our activities on time we must be leaders when it comes to best practice, it is a recommendation of the NSAA that schools should keep all activities, practices, and scrimmages in-house to avoid interaction with other teams; wear masks when not in competition; keep groups small and attendance recorded; wash your hands regularly; disinfect equipment regularly; stay home if you don’t feel well; and stay home if someone in your household tests positive for COVID-19.
“Our ultimate goal is to return to school to have a full, productive, healthy season and create a great experience for our students. Please, help us achieve this goal.”