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With some caveats, state allows for return of football

In a move championed by football players, coaches and parents alike, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday afternoon that the Oregon Health Authority will be revising its guidance for outdoor contact sports to make high school football an option again.

The OHA subsequently also is providing an exemption to play at all collegiate athletic levels, allowing Division II, Div. III and NAIA schools to submit health and safety plans to resume college athletics after previously allowing only DI schools to do so.

No change in guidance has been made by the OHA for indoor sports such as volleyball, which is set to begin practice Feb. 22, or basketball and wrestling, but Crater athletic director David Heard focused on celebrating Wednesday’s announcement as a giant step forward for all.

“I believe that this is going to change the culture of homes and of families that have athletes,” said Heard. “I believe that our athletes are depressed and I think this is going to be a huge uplift to everything about them — to their schoolwork, their attendance, to how they are at home.

“Just think about being told, basically for a year now, that you can’t do something you’ve been working on your whole life and then all of a sudden the door’s open and you can do it. I would imagine at football practice tonight, those kids will be running around with an adrenaline that we haven’t seen in a year.”

The governor’s announcement also was welcomed in the Oregon School Activities Association offices after months of joining the state’s coaches association and groups like Let Them Play, started here locally by Jim Bosworth and Rick Dyer, to advocate for a return to sports competitions.

“I’m just really excited for our students and our state to have these opportunities,” said Peter Weber, executive director of the OSAA. “We just need to figure out the logistics of how we make it work.”

“There’s just so many benefits in getting kids back out participating,” added Weber. “This is just another step in that progression that we’ve been on in the last few months for that to happen. It’s exciting.”

Beginning this week, outdoor contact sports will be permitted to resume with health and safety protocols in place based on county risk level. In lower and moderate risk counties, practices and games for outdoor contact sports, including high school football, can resume following health and safety guidance to be issued by the OHA.

“This has been a difficult year for Oregon’s youth athletes and, as our COVID-19 numbers have dropped, I have been committed to working with our health experts to reevaluate our protocols for sports,” said Gov. Brown. “School sports play an important role in fostering students’ mental, emotional and physical health. We will proceed with caution, to ensure that teams are following health and safety precautions to protect our athletes, their families, and their communities.”

In high and extreme risk counties where COVID-19 remains more widespread, such as here in Jackson and Josephine counties after metrics were updated Tuesday, schools and other sports organizations can opt in to resuming outdoor contact sports with additional protocols in place. In such counties, sports organizations must offer on-site responsive testing for symptomatic individuals and close contacts, contact information for contact tracing, and a waiver identifying health and safety risks and a commitment to isolation and quarantine if exposed to COVID-19.

While Heard was still awaiting the official notice from the OHA on the exact protocols, he seemed far less concerned about that process than the potential he had of again altering Crater’s Season 2 schedule, which includes the first junior varsity football game March 4 and varsity football game March 5.

“You know now many times we’ve changed this schedule? This is awesome,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to be busy, I have 19 home games in the evening here at Crater in March, but it’s worth it.”

“I think everybody is just super-excited,” added Heard. “It’s not in the format we want, there’s no state playoffs and that kind of stuff, but at this point, I don’t think anybody really cares.”

Schools in extreme and high risk counties wishing to opt in for outdoor contact sports must meet the requirements for sports organizations above, and must also have at least limited in-person instruction occurring, with the goal of achieving hybrid or full in-person instruction for students this school year. Schools must also be in compliance with state guidance for COVID-19 testing.

All Oregon counties currently meet the COVID-19 case count advisory metrics for limited in-person instruction. Jackson and Josephine counties do not currently meet the advisory metrics threshold, under 200 cases per 100,000, to return to at least hybrid in-person instruction, although the Medford School District has planned for a return to hybrid learning later this month at the lower levels and for high schoolers in March.

Central Point, Eagle Point and Phoenix school districts, as well as private schools like St. Mary’s and Cascade Christian, have already been taking part in at least hybrid in-person instruction. Ashland is set to begin hybrid learning at the lower levels in March.

The question the OHA will still need to shed light on for extreme risk area schools is whether they need to actively be having in-person instruction going now to opt-in for play, or if simply planning that move in the near future is enough to satisfy the criteria.

“I’ve already gotten that question from a couple of our schools as well,” said Weber. “We’ll be needing to look through the details of that document when the OHA provides it on whether you actually have to be doing the limited in-person or plan or about to and those types of things. On some of the stuff that we’ve seen come out over the past few months, like back in the fall when they said there had to be in-person instruction to do some things, they actually had to be in it to do it. But I don’t want to speculate on that until we know more.”

Those schools and sports organizations in high and extreme risk counties that do not opt in and implement the protocols and requirements above will continue to be limited to non-contact sports, practices and games. Indoor contact sports continue to be prohibited in all counties, due to the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Current Abbott BinaxNOW rapid testing resources for schools can be used for on-site testing of symptomatic athletes. Schools and sports organizations will also be encouraged to explore partnerships with the university system for athlete testing.

Gov. Brown added: “To all of Oregon’s high school athletes: I am asking you now to be leaders in your communities. We’ve given you the chance to play, but with that opportunity comes great responsibility. If COVID-19 numbers spike, we may have to shut down contact sports again. When you are off the field, set the example for your peers: wear a mask, maintain physical distance, and avoid social gatherings.

“It is not lost on me that this decision today will allow high school football to resume, when too many high school classrooms across Oregon remain empty. To all the parents of student athletes and coaches who have called and emailed me in the last year asking for school sports to resume, I am challenging you now to devote your energy to making sure in-person academics can resume for your kids, too. 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.”

For the college exemption, all teams must still meet the same rigorous standards that Oregon’s Division I programs have met before they will be permitted to resume full activities, including regular COVID-19 testing, plans for contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, and health and safety protocols for practices and games.

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

North Medford running back Devin Bradd lunges for first-down yardage during the first half of Friday's Southwest Conference football game against Sheldon. (Zack Palmer/For the Register-Guard)
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater's Caden Lasater (#14) and Blake Eaton (#11) make a stop on Thurston's Wesley Kommer during the 2nd quarter.