There were several times over the past few months that Robin Hines, who oversees rule-setting for high school sports in Georgia, had doubts the football season could happen this fall in the Peach State while the coronavirus pandemic raged on.
His worries spiked after July Fourth as positive cases of the highly infectious virus soared in the state, just as Georgia’s roughly 2,800 public schools were set to reopen their doors and student athletes chomped at the bit to resume playing sports.
Two months later, most of the more than 400 schools that play football in Georgia have kicked off the fall season with unceremonious socially-distanced coin tosses and a steady optimism that one of the state’s most beloved traditions will make it through the playoffs without having to shut down.
“We’ve already taken a season away from the spring and it’s devastating for some people,” Hines said in an interview last week. “We feel like we’re obligated to get back to athletic activity as quickly as we can and as safely as we can.”
As of last week, roughly 370 football-playing schools in Georgia have elected to hold games, Hines said. About 60 schools have opted out for either a few weeks or the entire season.
The first week of football games in Georgia also coincided with the normally bustling Labor Day holiday weekend that has prompted state health officials and Gov. Brian Kemp to warn Georgians not to abandon caution with the virus and to wear masks, wash hands and keep distanced.
Spring seasons for baseball, track, soccer and more were scrapped along with in-person classes in March as the COVID-19 pandemic swept over Georgia. Since then, many students have returned for the fall semester and state officials have gradually eased up on virus-curbing distancing and activity restrictions.
The Georgia High School Association (GHSA), which Hines heads up as executive director, has pitched a laundry list of sanitizing and distance-keeping rules for football teams to follow with common-sense ideas like not sharing water bottles to proper soaping methods for washing composite leather balls.
But local schools largely are being left to their own devices when it comes to deciding whether fans will be allowed in the stands at games and what the threshold is for canceling games in the event players start turning up sick.
Some public-health experts in Georgia have eyed the return of football and other fall sports with wariness while the pandemic continues without a vaccine or cure.
Richard Rothenberg, an infectious-disease and epidemiology professor at Georgia State University who worked for 25 years at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said football games being held in areas where the virus has created local outbreaks would likely speed up infections from person to person.
Especially in rural areas where hospitals have closed in recent years, schools need detailed data on testing and contact tracing in their surrounding communities to know whether the virus has gone quiet in their area – or whether an outbreak has sparked.
“If you can’t really answer those questions, you probably shouldn’t start the season,” Rothenberg said in an interview last week. “But that’s a difficult admonition. I understand that.”
Initially, the GHSA collected reports on positive COVID-19 test results from schools at the start of summer, when locker rooms were also banned and practicing teams limited to groups of 20 players with no scrimmages.
Since June, around 1,370 positive test results of players in all sports were reported from local school districts. Hines estimated Georgia has roughly 400,000 eligible high-school student athletes.
Now, Hines said the GHSA is not requiring schools to submit test results, noting the data was only used to assess how to move forward with summer training and whether to relax practice sizes and activity restrictions, Hines said.
The state Department of Education has not issued any COVID-19 safety guidelines for high school sports other than what the GHSA has advised, according to an agency spokesperson.
Hines said it’s a good bet the GHSA will know about any potential outbreaks if schools start quarantining their students and football games get canceled. The GHSA is waiving fines and other penalties for skipped games this season and allowing teams to make them up or declare a no-contest, Hines said.
With uncertainties hovering over all facets of life heading into fall, Hines said he does not anticipate so many teams will have to cancel games that the GHSA would be forced to halt the season.
“I expect that’s not going to be the case,” Hines said. “I expect there will be some bumps in the road.”
Echoing the advice of other health experts, GSU’s Rothenberg said student athletes and their parents need to decide whether the risks of potentially transmitting the virus outweigh the developmental benefits of participating in youth sports.
“It is a very difficult issue,” Rothenberg said. “There’s no single answer to this.”
Hines said much the same, stressing his belief that local communities and families should know better than the GHSA how to guard their own well-being and make sound decisions on when to pull the plug on football if necessary.
“At the end of the day, every student athlete as well as the parents and the school and the district have a decision to make,” Hines said. “Everybody has to make a determination and weigh the risks with the benefits.”