How COVID-19 has affected Illinois high schools, from cancellations in March to the IHSA’s decision to proceed with the boys and girls basketball seasons

Chicago Tribune staff, Chicago Tribune

The Illinois High School Association on Wednesday announced the boys and girls basketball seasons would begin as scheduled despite the Illinois Department of Public Health deeming them to be high risk during the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. J.B. Pritzker recommending they be “put on hold.”

Since early March, the coronavirus outbreak has forced the cancellation or postponement of several high school sports. Here’s a timeline of developments.

When did this all begin?

On March 12, the Illinois High School Association, hours after pledging to continue with the boys basketball state tournament despite several coronavirus-related cancellations, pulled the plug on the event, among the last of the 2019-20 winter sports season.

About 30 minutes before a Class 3A sectional semifinal game at Hinsdale South, the IHSA told coaches the season was over. The IHSA also canceled postseason events for Scholastic Bowl, drama and group interpretation, music, debate and journalism.

“The board considered suspending the events, but after deliberate discussion, did not believe that was a realistic option within the timeline,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said. “We feel for everyone who has been impacted, but must put the health and safety of all involved ahead of these events.”

The decision came on the heels of the NCAA canceling its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and professional sports leagues halting their seasons.

The IHSA also put the spring season temporarily on hold.

What happened to the 2020 spring sports season?

The IHSA on April 21 — four days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced schools would be closed for the remainder of the academic year — canceled state tournaments in all spring sports and activities.

“We support the decision by Governor Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said. “Given the logistics, we simply felt we could not conduct state tournaments that meet the expectations of our member schools this spring.

“As disappointing as it may be for students, it is the right decision for their health and safety, as well as for the health and safety of the general public, as we cope with this unprecedented pandemic.”

Anderson also announced summer contact days were suspended pending state guidelines.

Were student-athletes cleared to practice over the summer?

The Illinois Department of Health on July 3 approved the IHSA’s Phase 4 Return to Play guidelines, clearing the way for contact days to begin July 6.

Athletes had been limited to non-sport-specific workouts since June, basically conditioning in groups of 10. In phase four, groups of 50 were allowed to work together. If outdoors, different groups of 50 had to be 30 feet apart. If indoors, groups were limited to 50, regardless of space.

“Safety remains at the forefront of everything the IHSA is doing as we move into phase four and beyond,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said in a statement. “We appreciate the collaborative efforts of the SMAC (Sports Medicine Advisory Committee) and IDPH in recognizing the physical, mental and emotional benefits for our student-athletes and coaches as they progress into training in a more traditional practice setting.

“Our focus now shifts to continuing to work with state leadership to determine how to provide the safest environment possible for fall sports.”

Protocols included limiting athletes to five hours of participation per day during the summer, requiring coaches and officials to wear masks and the cleaning and sanitizing of all equipment and facilities. A daily record of body temperature and other COVID-19 symptoms were kept on each athlete.

On July 7, student-athletes at three Lake Zurich High School summer camps tested positive, leading the camps to be canceled for the rest of the week.

A letter sent to those participating in all the high school’s sports camps did not say how many students tested positive. Families of students on the football, poms and baseball teams notified Lake Zurich School District 95 that the students had tested positive, athletic director Andrew Lambert said in the letter. The students were tested because they had been in contact with someone who also tested positive.

So fall sports went on as scheduled, right?

Not all of them. The IHSA on July 29 postponed the football, girls volleyball and boys soccer seasons to the spring, scheduled to run Feb. 15-May 1.

The other fall sports seasons — boys and girls cross-country, boys and girls golf, girls tennis and girls swimming — went on this fall.

“This plan, like nearly every aspect of our current lives, remains fluid,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said in a news release. “Changes may come, and if they do, we will be agile while putting safety and students first. It was important that we provide a framework today for our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and officials to begin preparing for the 2020-21 school year.”

The IHSA news came hours after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced there would be restrictions for youth, high school and adult recreational sports, saying “it is obvious there won’t be enough protection for kids on our playing fields.”

Pritzker said sports would be categorized into three risk levels — lower, medium or higher — based on contact between athletes and proximity during play.

Did the IHSA receive any backlash for its decision to postpone some fall sports?

Yes. The parents of four DuPage County high school athletes in September filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the return of football and other sports that were postponed, saying the IHSA violated its bylaws when it agreed to follow the state’s safety guidelines.

The suit, filed on behalf of a basketball player, two football players and a competitive dancer, said the IHSA failed to follow its procedures when it “adopted as binding guidelines on IHSA schools several nonbinding guidelines issued by (Gov. J.B.) Pritzker regarding the conduct and timing of interscholastic athletics for its member schools.”

In a motion seeking a temporary restraining order, attorney Jeffrey Widman suggested that since Pritzker has not issued an executive order on sports, his administration’s guidance is not binding.

The IHSA, already facing a similar lawsuit in Montgomery County, near St. Louis, said it would defer to state officials about returning to play.

What was the outcome of the lawsuit?

A DuPage County judge on Oct. 1 declined to issue a temporary restraining order that might have helped high school football and other contact sports return this fall, saying the IHSA was within its rights to delay the sports for safety reasons.

“We are in a pandemic, and I think what the IHSA did was within their authority under (the organization’s) bylaws and constitution,” Judge Paul Fullerton said.

Though he expressed sympathy for the young athletes who are watching their opportunities vanish, Fullerton noted that the country is enduring a once-in-a-century hardship.

“Drastic times, drastic remedies,” he said.

Do student-athletes whose seasons were postponed have any options to play?

Not in Illinois. But some have opted to transfer to schools in states with less stringent COVID-19 guidelines.

Nazareth’s J.J. McCarthy, the nation’s 14th-ranked recruit and No. 2 pro-style quarterback, announced in May he was transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for his senior season. The five-star Michigan recruit was one of four Nazareth players to move out of state to play football this fall.

Another example: Joliet West point guard Jeremy Fears Jr., the nation’s 21st-ranked recruit in the Class of 2023, announced last week he was transferring to Indiana prep school La Lumiere. The sophomore has offers from Illinois, DePaul, Iowa, Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona and Maryland, among other schools.

Some athletes who also play club sports have been able to compete because their clubs are playing games and tournaments out of state.

Winter sports seasons — including boys and girls basketball — are scheduled to begin in a few weeks. Any update?

Glad you asked.

The Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday moved basketball from medium risk to high risk, and under current conditions, high-risk sports are allowed only non-contact practices, according to state guidelines.

What it means: The basketball seasons were “put on hold,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Tuesday, less than three weeks before practices were scheduled to begin Nov. 16. Games were to begin as early as Nov. 30.

Although Pritzker emphasized in a news release that nothing has been “canceled” for the winter season, the IHSA responded to his decision in August by moving football and several other sports to the spring.

“As with sports in the fall, nothing is ‘canceled,’ just put on hold until we’re through the thick of this pandemic,” Pritzker said. “We adapt as we learn. That has been our mantra throughout this pandemic.

“We know this virus is of most concern when people are indoors with high contact, especially in vigorous situations that bring about heavy breathing, like in wrestling, hockey and basketball. Life in a pandemic is hard for everyone, and it’s hard for all of our kids, whether or not they play sports. That doesn’t make it any easier, but we really are all in this together.”

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson was pleased cheerleading and dance were moved to low risk but also sounded disappointed in the decision to move basketball to high risk

“We remain considerate of the recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases in our state,” Anderson said. “However, in our meeting with IDPH on Friday (Oct. 23), we felt that we presented multiple options that would allow for basketball to be conducted safely by IHSA schools this winter, many of which are being utilized in neighboring states who plan to play high school basketball.”

So that’s it — no basketball until February at the earliest?

No. In a stunning decision Wednesday, the IHSA said it voted to move forward with the boys and girls basketball seasons as scheduled, ignoring Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health recommendation.

The board also voted to move wrestling to the summer season, which will be held April 19 to June 26.

Boys swimming and diving, cheerleading, dance, boys and girls bowling and girls gymnastics — also IHSA winter sports — have been deemed low risk. Mitigation rules for those sports will be posted later in the week.

In explaining the move, the IHSA board of directors released the following statement:

"(We) made the decision today to continue with the basketball season as scheduled in 2020-21. In August, the board slated basketball to take place from November to February based on the Illinois Department of Public Health assigning a medium risk level to the sport. The IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee offered additional mitigations, such as masks during play and social distancing on benches, that the SMAC believed would allow basketball to be played safely.

“The high school basketball season was potentially put on hold on Oct. 27, when Gov. Pritzker announced that IDPH had changed basketball’s risk level from medium risk to high risk. After diligent discussion, the board has made the decision to follow the recommendation of the SMAC as it relates to basketball. The Board remains considerate of rising COVID-19 cases in Illinois and understands the importance of adhering to safety guidelines for the good of all citizens.

“However, the board has not been presented any causal evidence that rising COVID-19 cases make basketball more dangerous to play by the IDPH or any other health organization nationally or internationally. On the contrary, the IHSA has been looking to bordering states who have sponsored both medium risk and high risk sports in the fall that have noted a low incident rate of COVID-19 spread.

“Instead, we will require all IHSA basketball teams to adhere to those SMAC mitigations, and allow local school officials to make decisions related to participation. Mounting challenges, from increased mental health issues among our students to a shrinking calendar that limits our ability to move sports seasons this school year, were instrumental in this decision to move forward with basketball as scheduled.”

Compiled from Chicago Tribune and Daily Southtown reports.

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