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Fall sports in the UP, Northern Michigan can happen; rest of state still on hold

Vince Fleming

In a move sure to frustrate high school athletes, their coaches, and parents, the Michigan High School Athletic Association said Thursday, in what was already a one-day-delayed announcement, that it still needs another week or so to figure out if most of the state can play girls volleyball, boys soccer and girls swimming & diving indoor this year. 


That’s because the MHSAA is still waiting on guidance from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration about which executive order takes precedent: one that lets the MHSAA create the guidelines for the return to school sports? Or one that limits the number of people who can gather in indoor facilities and physical distancing in regions still under stricter COVID guidelines? 

Two regions of the state, the UP and the northern Lower Peninsula, have low enough COVID risk that they’ve been moved to the “Phase 5,” or “containing” phase of the state’s reopening plan. With fewer restrictions, MSHAA says, competition in those areas can begin tomorrow, August 21, as scheduled. (There will, however, be limits on attendance: whether it’s an indoor pool, volleyball court, or outdoor meet, facilities have to be 25% capacity, max.) 

But the rest of the state, which is still in the more restrictive “Phase 4,” can only continue outdoor practice, “pending further executive orders allowing for the opening of indoor facilities and physical distancing while competing in those areas,” the MSHAA said in a statement Thursday. 

“Our Council has made clear it is ready to offer students these opportunities, pending approval from Governor Whitmer that we may do so,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said in the press release. “We have been told that within a week, future guidance will address athletic issues that exist in current executive orders. We are awaiting that guidance.

“...We need more answers before we can give all of our member schools the go-ahead to play each other again, and the majority of our schools are in regions that are not yet allowed to take part in volleyball, soccer and swim.”

A moving target 

Some of these decisions - like deciding that outdoor football isn’t safe, but indoor volleyball is - come down to risk assessment and judgement calls. 

“Obviously, there would be some concern when people are across the net from each other in volleyball,” says MSHAA spokesman Geoff Kimmerly. “But generally, the amount of time there for this contact is pretty low. Football, every minute or so, you have your entire line on both sides basically inches from each other for five, ten seconds. And that happens over and over and over and over again for up to two hours.” 

Still, even with the available guidance, figuring out which sport can do what, and when, continues to be complicated. It verges on requiring a calculator, a calendar, a map, and one of those whiteboards with red string connecting all the dots, like forensics teams use to solve murders on TV.  


According to the release:

“Teams began outdoor practice in volleyball, soccer, swimming & diving, cross country, golf and tennis on Aug. 12. Lower Peninsula girls golf and boys tennis, and Upper Peninsula girls tennis began competition Aug. 19, with cross country competition beginning Aug. 21. Football practice began Aug. 10, and on Aug. 14 the Representative Council voted to postpone the Fall 2020 football season to Spring 2021, also due to COVID-19 concerns.”

Then there are the attendance limits: 

“For attendance purposes, schools in Regions 6 and 8 may have for indoor volleyball a total of 250 people or 25 percent of a facility’s capacity, whichever is smallest. Indoor pools in Regions 6 and 8 are limited to 25 percent of established bather capacity for that pool. Outdoor competition in Regions 6 and 8 may have 500 people or 25 percent of capacity, whichever is smallest. For all three sports, the total numbers of people allowed to be present include all participants, officials and school and game personnel, media and fans.”

Like so much of the return to school this year, the wait for clear guidance has been difficult for many, says Kimmerly.  

“I think the people up north are excited because they can play these sports,” he says. “But certainly, I think the people further downstate, where they're not allowed to yet, there’s probably a little bit of anxiety.

“Obviously, on Friday, we had to make a decision where we had to move football to spring. And so we went from having half the state mad at us early in the day when we were still playing, to the other half mad at us in the afternoon, when we decided that we needed to postpone. So obviously there are a lot of feelings about this.

“And to be honest, we're glad, because that means people care. But at the same time, we'd rather have it be 100% one way. We'd rather be able to offer all the opportunities that we always are able to offer. We know how important athletics are to students.”

More practice time for spring football, other sports 

The association also approved more coaching and practice time for sports, including football, that had their full seasons canceled or moved to spring. For football, that includes 16 “contact days” for full practice anytime between August 24 and October 31. 

For sports that had their spring 2020 season canceled towards the end of last school year, when the pandemic hit, those contact days can be scheduled from September 8 through October 31st.

“Football and all spring sports then may conduct skill work with coaches and up to four players at a time beginning Nov. 1 until the first day of official practice this upcoming spring,” the MSHAA statement says. “Coaches also may work with an unlimited number of players on general conditioning during that time.”

Of course, all of these guidelines could change as the school year unfolds. 

“What we've told our schools is, this is where we're at right now,” Kimmerly says. “We're going to continue to follow the guidance from the governor's office and the state health department. That's what we've done all along, that’s what we're going to continue to do. If things change, not in a good way, we'll have to go a different way. But we're hopeful that's not the case.” 


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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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