Fall high school sports are up and running again, but without the sweeping statewide restrictions teams faced last year. Decisions on how the seasons will proceed are being made at a local level, and administrators say will be guided by health departments.
This comes as members of the medical community warn of a rise in COVID-19 cases, particularly the delta variant that they say is more contagious in kids.
“I'm not really worried about it, because I'd rather be playing football,” said Sloane Childs, a sophomore on the Gunnison Valley High School football team. “You learn a lot from football. It doesn't just teach you plays and stuff. It teaches you how to work hard.”
He says he’s relieved not to have to do early morning regular COVID tests this year like he and his team had to undergo last year. He also said how much easier it is to practice and breathe on the sidelines without having to wear a mask.
His mom Wendy Childs says she’s grateful the state of Utah has decided to move forward allowing student-athletes to play at a high school level, but she knows that could change as the pandemic evolves.
“But COVID is here with us, sadly I think, forever. We need to have more long-term solutions. We can’t just call things off," she said.
As for sports, she says it’s the life lessons it teaches her kids that make her such a supporter of the programs, even with cases of COVID increasing right now.
“I'm not afraid of COVID, but I have a respect for it. I have had many people in my life that have gotten sick from COVID, and some who have passed away, so I do understand the seriousness of it," she added. "So I'm grateful to move forward in sports with the understanding that we're going to be guided by professionals."
On the first day of school for GVHS and the South Sanpete School District, the Central Utah Public Health Department sent out an alert for all parents with information on the virus, encouraging all those eligible to get vaccinated. It included information stating: “nearly 85% of new COVID-19 cases are in individuals who are unvaccinated” and “unvaccinated Utahns 12-18 years of age are 9 times more likely to contract COVID compared to those who are vaccinated."
Rhett Jackson is the athletics director at Gunnison Valley High, where he says it’s full steam ahead with their fall sports schedule.
“We're going to try and do everything we can to enable these student-athletes in our state to have these great experiences and to do it with as minimal COVID restrictions as possible," he said.
That’s a big change from last year’s limited fan attendance, social distancing requirements, masking for fans and athletes on the sidelines and regular COVID testing for those on the various teams.
“Our UHSAA member schools did a wonderful job. You know, Utah was one of only a few states able to take all their sports through to a championship tourney last year in all sports. Our mantra here in Utah has been 'Let's find a way to say yes. Let's do everything we can to keep these avenues open for our student-athletes, instead of other states looking for excuses to shut down,'" Jackson added.
“For a period of time, I think for maybe three months, I didn't see any patients with COVID, and now I'm seeing one or two or three every day that I'm on,” said Dr. GJ Willden, an emergency room physician at Gunnison Valley Hospital, an independent medical center serving rural communities in central Utah.
Willden says he’s concerned about how contagious this new delta variant is in kids and says we won’t know for a few weeks the real impact of schools and close-contact sports resuming right now while cases are starting to go back up.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of vaccination,” Willden said, expressing his concern about the low vaccination levels across the state and particularly in rural Utah.
According to the state’s coronavirus website, central Utah is at about 35 percent, while the state’s rate is closer to 55 percent of those eligible having received their shots.
“I just really hope that people will go to medical providers that they trust," Willden said. "It's so much more reliable than getting information off the internet or off of a potentially biased website.”
Other moms of student-athletes expressed relief at getting the 2021 football season underway. FOX 13 was in Farmingon last Friday as teams took the field and fans took to the stands without any social distancing and most without a mask. One parent told FOX 13 they hoped the season would be able to continue, but they will be ready for anything.
The Bountiful vs. Highland game had to be called off for their season opener after a player tested positive for COVID.
Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams talked to FOX 13 about what their schools hope to do to allow the teams to continue to play, but he also said it’s up to each individual athlete.
"We're not testing students, but we're telling students: 'If you have the symptoms' — and they know what those symptoms are — 'please let us know, please get tested. We can not have you around when you get sick,'" Williams said.
Criticized by some for a lack of a statewide solution, the Utah High School Activities Association gave us this statement:
“The UHSAA governing boards are encouraging local schools and local school districts to work with their local health departments in making decisions regarding COVID-19 in their local school communities."