Brown gives high schools permission to play football – if they also have students in classrooms
Oregon’s high school football players can take the field under Friday night lights again.
The Oregon Health Authority will update the county risk-level guidance to allow outdoor contact sports, Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday. Schools can play football even in extreme-risk counties, as long as they that have at least limited in-person learning and follow additional safety protocols.
Brown’s move pressures schools to offer more in-person education as other parts of the state open up.
“If our school gyms, fields and weight rooms are to reopen, we owe it to Oregon’s children to make sure our classrooms, libraries and science labs fully reopen as well,” Brown’s statement said.
Brown used the announcement to call on communities to follow health and safety protocols to continue to decrease COVID-19’s spread.
Phoenix High School sophomore Julius Bolstad said the news was “sweet.” Bolstad plays football, baseball and basketball for the Phoenix-Talent School District south of Medford.
“We all didn’t think it was going to happen, so it’s great to hear that it is,” he said.
Oregon is one of the few states that has not held official high school sports this year. The Oregon School Activities Association rescheduled its calendar to offer three distinct, but shorter, sports seasons, starting with noncontact football practices on Monday, Feb. 8. Cross-country, soccer and volleyball officially start Feb. 22.
Estacada School District Athletic Director and football coach Andy Mott said the attitude on the football field Monday was different than in past years, much more focused on just being glad to be there.
“Our kids are so hungry to get back I think they would do anything,” he said. “I think if we ran the whole practice, they would still come back tomorrow.”
He said students in the community southeast of Portland are following the mask rules and other safety protocols because they seem to be willing to do whatever it takes to keep practicing.
Mott said the excitement is building for him, too.
“I feel like an AD again,” he said. “Phones are ringing. Emails are blowing up. It feels a little more normal. It’s going to be a crazy spring.”
OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said he is excited about the rules change and is eager to see the upcoming guidance, especially the requirements for high- and extreme-risk counties. Indoor contact sports remain prohibited, and other indoor sports, such as volleyball, were not addressed.
“It’s not all students, it’s not all activities but it’s another step,” Weber said.
The county risk-level rules, which cover business and social activities as well, limit indoor and outdoor recreation participation based on county coronavirus case numbers.
Brown’s Wednesday email said requirements for offering outdoor contact sports in high- and extreme-risk counties will include on-site testing, contact tracing information and signed waivers.
On Tuesday, the governor’s office announced that effective Feb. 12-25, the number of extreme-risk counties would drop from 24 to 14. Volleyball matches are currently prohibited in extreme-risk counties.
The OSAA executive board met Monday and held off canceling the football season, hoping for some sort of rules change this week. The executive board also voted Monday to allow high schools to offer noncontact football-related competitive events.
Weber said he expects the board to allow those options to continue. County risk levels and requirements for in-person instruction could still prevent some schools from starting up football.
Phoenix High’s Bolstad said he prefers to have real football games but OSAA’s challenge events sound fun.
“Something is better than nothing,” he said. “It’s better than playing video games on my phone.”
School sports advocates have been saying for months that students desperately need the activities for their mental and physical health.
Phoenix High senior Fatima Flores was among the more than 3,000 people who lost a home in the September wildfire that devastated her community. The email saying cross-country practices were resuming was a bright spot in a difficult time.
“I could run and feel like myself again,” she said. “When I run, I feel like I release all that negative energy and I’m free.”
OSAA has allowed schools to offer practices and contests outside their typical seasons to give students as many sporting opportunities as possible.
Phoenix High has held optional practices in multiple sports for weeks, but Flores said she is looking forward to the real thing.
“We can’t get close to each other, but having everyone there is really exciting,” she said.
Flores’ real passion is basketball, which starts May 10. Indoor contact sport prohibitions in all counties will stand, though, as long as case numbers stay up.
Brown’s statement pleaded with athletes to set a good example with safety protocols to continue Oregon’s progress reducing COVID-19’s spread.
“We’ve given you the chance to play, but with that opportunity comes great responsibility,” she said. “If COVID-19 numbers spike, we may have to shut down contact sports again.”
Flores said her cross-country team does a good job of using masks and keeping social distances. She said she hopes it will be possible to play basketball by May with safety precautions but accepts that it might not be.
“But it’s not a bad thing to have hope,” Flores said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA