ST. PAUL — Every day, Erich Martens gets the same request from parents, coaches, activity directors and beyond, all asking for the same thing: That the Minnesota State High School League return to some level of high school sports participation this fall.
State tournaments, regular seasons, whatever. Just anything to allow the kids to play.
Those requests highlight how important the activities are to the students — for their mental health, their involvement and the opportunity to connect with friends and classmates. Martens, the MSHSL’s executive director, gets that. If activities can be held in a safe manner, it behooves the League to hold them.
“We know that everyone is very anxious for answers, and we know that there is a lot to consider there,” Martens said during Thursday’s MSHSL summer Board of Directors meeting. “Our primary consideration is around providing opportunities within the scope of what is safe for all participants, including students, coaches, directors, officials and anyone else who’s connected to the opportunities that we are able to provide.”
Associate director Craig Perry said every discussion within the league network starts with optimism. The league continues to plan for an Aug. 17 start for fall sports practices — the current appointed date.
“But we also are, daily, discussing contingency plans — a delayed start, everything from full participation to no participation,” Perry said. “So we have been looking at those daily, and we gather information from our league participants. Their input has helped us with our preliminary plans.”
The board approved the creation of a “return-to-participation task force” that will look at three potential options for Minnesota schooling this fall — in-person, distance and hybrid — and how the option Gov. Tim Walz selects will impact decision-making on athletics, starting with fall sports.
The task force will feature members of the board of directors, as well as representatives from around the state, because, as associate director Jody Redman noted, “every part of the state is very different.”
“Applying a cookie-cutter approach to COVID and to what our cities and towns are facing is very challenging, when in one part of the state, there’s absolutely no current indication of any type of COVID outbreak, and in other parts, we’re shutting down schools,” Redman said. “So I think to be able to hear directly from ADs across the state and get perspective on where they’re at has been a great perspective for us in putting forward a plan that will help our schools meet their needs at this time.”
Does that mean that maybe some areas of the state will play certain sports this fall, while others don’t? Seemingly everything is on the table at this point. Condensed seasons have been discussed. Maybe there will only be regular seasons for certain sports. Some fall sports, such as football, could be flipped to be played in the spring in hopes that the situation involving the coronavirus has improved by then.
At this point, there are far more questions than answers.
“Let’s think about how we can be flexible with each sport and activity to find a way to allow them to be played or to allow participants to engage in those activities. … We may have to think about that differently, not just with our tournaments, but also our seasons,” associate director Bob Madison said. “Instead of looking at individual sports or activities, they want to talk about flipping seasons. I think our focus has been, ‘When would it be best to play a sport?’ Or, ‘When can an activity be participated in when it’s safe?’ Health and safety is at the forefront.”
If Walz announces that school will be conducted via distance learning this fall, that won’t necessarily be a death sentence for high school sports. It will depend on the exact order. In the spring, when Walz closed in-person schooling, his orders limited schools to be used for childcare for families of essential workers and to provide food services for students in need.
“While activities may have wanted to be offered, they were not allowed to be offered,” Martens said in a phone call Thursday. “At this point, we have not heard that about our school facilities and what they’re going to be limited to, and therefore, I think it provides the opportunity for a more differentiated look on what can be offered. And yet I would say our schools are going to look for some level of consistency in terms of when the seasons are going to be and how they play out.
“But,” Martens added, “we’ve got to get back and get started before we can even talk about where we place things.”