McALLEN — As the Rio Grande Valley’s COVID-19 saga intensifies, school district officials and coaches throughout the region are continuing extensive discussions focused on when, if and how to gradually return to high school athletics.
The Texas Educational Agency announced Tuesday that schools throughout the state will remain open for the 2020-21 school year and be provided state funding for additional coronavirus-related safety measures for the upcoming school year, while also allowing Texas schools to utilize virtual or remote learning options for students with the means to do so.
The University Interscholastic League followed that up Wednesday by unveiling wide-ranging updates to its COVID-19 policies and guidelines for this summer and the 2020-21 school year, including a face mask/covering mandate, updated social distancing guidelines and requirement for individual schools or school districts to produce their own “mitigation plans” and policies before they can allow athletes to access locker rooms and other workout areas.
Both announcements have accelerated conversations between school officials, coaches and athletic directors and coordinators across the region as RGV schools and school districts try to determine if it’s feasible for high school athletics to return this school year, and if so, what that might look like on a local level.
“We can’t be in a bubble. You definitely think of the statistics and the data in your area, but you also think about really the whole Rio Grande Valley,” said Paula Gonzalez, athletic director for McAllen ISD. “When we compete in season, we compete all the way to Brownsville and Roma, and we do travel all over the Valley and to Laredo and San Antonio a bit, so we do need to be aware of the situation everywhere, not only what presents itself in the area of McAllen.”
For many coaches and school administrators, that means preparing in every way for the first day of UIL fall practices Aug. 3 and developing wide-ranging, sustainable strategies to adjust practices moving forward.
“Until the UIL says ‘yes’ or the UIL says ‘no,’ we’re going to stay positive and plan on having a season not just in football, but all the other sports,” Weslaco High athletic coordinator and head football coach Roy Stroman said. “We came up with a pretty good plan for strength and conditioning and sport-specific (workouts) that we felt was right for our kids and our student-athletes and here recently, we amended our program and plan. We’re going to wait and see.”
“Our coaches and administrators have been really supportive in terms of getting sports back going and the extracurriculars like band and everything. It’s a big part of the school and a big deal for the students,” Mission High athletic coordinator and head football coach Koy Detmer said. “It’s just one of those tough things because things seem to change weekly as to what might happen. The uncertainty is really the tough part.”
“The plan, as of now, is to start our fall seasons on time. That presents a very unique situation because we want to prepare and we want to be safe,” Gonzalez said.
No Valley high school athletic program that paused its on-campus summer strength and conditioning workouts will be resuming Monday, the first day under revised UIL guidelines that summer workouts may restart, along with a few other districts that postponed the start of their summer strength and conditioning programs, like Edinburg CISD.
Two target return dates that have been circulating between different school districts in South Texas recently are Monday, July 20, and Monday, Aug. 3, the first scheduled day of fall sports practices when Corpus Christi ISD announced it would restart on-campus workouts.
“We don’t want to jump the gun or anything, but we obviously want to have a plan and our plan right now is to wait for guidance from the UIL,” Mercedes athletic coordinator and head football coach Roger Adame said. “In a week or two if the numbers continue to increase, obviously we’ll have to make an adjustment to what we want to do, whether that’s delay practices a week or a couple of weeks, and what does that do for the teams in general for volleyball, cross country and football? Does that put them at a disadvantage?”
According to the Dallas Morning News, Dallas First Baptist head football coach Jason Lovvorn sent a proposal to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) that would in essence flip-flop the spring and fall sports seasons with spring semester football. The UIL has acknowledged it has seen the proposal, but has not endorsed or adopted it.
There are several coaches in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as Laredo, who believe the proposal makes sense, in theory, because sports like baseball, softball, track and field would face fewer difficulties in maintaining social distancing guidelines in the long run.
Others push back on that plan in regards to feasibility, citing the arduous and daunting task of rescheduling entire seasons for every sport in the span of three weeks before the UIL’s still-scheduled Aug. 3 start date.
“In respect to UIL, I know that we had a lot of directors meetings and UIL was present there. They do have different options, and I’m sure they’re looking at a lot of different options, but it’s my understanding right now that (flip flopping spring and fall sports) is not one of the options they are looking at,” Gonzalez said.
The general consensus among RGV athletic directors and coaches indicates that further postponing the start of the fall sports season seems to be a more likely alternative at this stage.
Many local coaches and athletic coordinators, however, remain committed to continuing their digital offseason strength and conditioning programs while developing their own mitigation plans and policies to eventually return student-athletes to campus, whenever that may be.
“We meet with our position players virtually at least twice a week just to see where everybody’s at and keep up with our players,” Sharyland Pioneer head softball coach and assistant football coach Orlando Garcia said. “I met with our inside receivers this morning, and if football is going to happen for us, we’re basically four weeks away from our first scrimmage. When you think of it like that, it’s right around the corner.”
“There are some really intelligent people in the UIL and throughout the state that are coming up with several scenarios, and some of those I think will work for us as far as maybe the season being condensed or having no scrimmages. Certain districts are different due to the amount of teams they have in their district,” Adame said. “We’re hoping we can get (a season) played, but safety is going to come first and hopefully we can get some control over this, see numbers start to decrease and the hospitals return to below capacity.”