Football practice began Thursday with a suddenly approved fall season quickly approaching. Durango High School opened under the toughest guidelines in place in Colorado, while smaller schools in Bayfield and Ignacio felt lucky, for once, to have teams with smaller rosters.
Regardless of any COVID-19 related guidelines, there was one overwhelming consensus: players and coaches are happy to be back to work with games only two short weeks away.
“It’s been four months of not really having anything on the horizon to shoot for,” said BHS head coach Gary Heide, who led the Wolverines to state championships in 2015 and 2017. “Now, we have a game, and it is two weeks. That’s real exciting. We’ve had great attendance from the kids coming out and a lot of focus the last two nights at practice. I am coaching football, kids are playing football and kickoff is two weeks away. The weather is nice, the grass is green and we are ready to keep rolling.”
Official practices began Thursday, eight days after the Colorado High School Activities Association had variances approved from the office of Gov. Jared Polis to allow high school football to return in the fall. Originally, Colorado pushed football to the spring after it did not gain variances to public health orders in place during the summer because of the novel coronavirus.
But, as states around the country began to kickoff and others reversed decisions to play in the spring to move forward with a fall schedule, pressure once again mounted in Colorado. That led to a deal that allowed teams in Colorado to have a choice of whether to play in the fall or spring.
A total of 218 schools, which is 78.99% of the state, opted to begin a fall schedule. The rest will play in the spring. In Southwest Colorado, every high school opted to play in the fall with the exception of Montezuma-Cortez.
Schools must follow local health guidelines. In Archuleta and La Plata Counties, that comes from San Juan Basin Public Health. Durango School District 9-R spoke with SJBPH before declaring its intent to play in the fall, and the local health agency made recommendations for organized sports. SJBPH sent those recommendations to superintendents and athletic directors in Archuleta and La Plata Counties.
Statewide, Boulder has perhaps the toughest restrictions on its high schools, mandating that players wear masks during games. Locally, Durango 9-R has set the strictest rules for its Class 3A team. Parents of players had to sign a waiver acknowledging precautions that could be taken as well as the risks of playing contact sports, especially as it pertains to playing other schools from outside of the immediate region.
“There are extra precautions we are taking or thinking we might need to take to keep our cohorts as healthy as possible,” said 9-R Athletic Director Ryan Knorr. “We worked so hard to get school up and running. We kind of feel we owe it to the teachers and all of the students to do everything we can to minimize a potential shutdown.”
While 9-R players had to sign that waiver, that has not been the case at other schools. An activities agreement acknowledgment form for Class 2A Bayfield players simply states that players and their parents know the inherent risk of participating in athletics, including the risk of COVID-19. It does not mention any potential COVID-19 testing of players.
In Durango, it’s a different story. The district has said it will share information with local health authorities, therefore Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) will not apply to football players. The waiver also says strategic testing will take place throughout the season for players, coaches and training staff following competition or exposure to out-of-area teams where transmission rates are higher. Families will not be charged for the testing. The cost will be picked up by the district. One positive test could shut down the entire team for a minimum of 14 days.
The waiver indicated athletes may be forced into remote learning following competition against out-of-area teams to keep players separated from classmates and staff. Knorr said it is possible football players could be kept in their own cohort in one room of the high school to continue on-campus learning in the days immediately following an out-of-area competition.
Competition against out-of-area teams more than three hours away is unavoidable in football, especially for Durango which is once again in a league with schools from Pueblo and also has one non-league game against Mitchell on Oct. 17 in Colorado Springs. That’s the same day Durango cross-country runners will also be in Colorado Springs for the state championship meet with teams from all across the state.
“We’re looking at it because we are traveling to Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Their transmission rate is a lot higher than anywhere else we have played up until now,” Knorr said. “There is a legitimate fear from people in the district of us going to Pueblo. We are looking at what steps we can do to minimize that. Really, it’s just us being super cautious with it being a contact sport. We’re trying to minimize shutting down the school. We wanted families to have a heads up for these extra precautions.”
The fears about Pueblo County and El Paso County may not be entirely warranted, though. El Paso County is in the same “Safer Level 1” designation as La Plata County, while Pueblo County is in “Safer Level 2” but, for the past two weeks, has trended toward “Safer Level 1” and is nearing the “Protect Our Neighbors” designation of state health levels that La Plata County is also trending toward.
The policies are new since the approval of fall football. Athletes in boys tennis traveled to Pueblo on Friday for state tournament play. Boys golfers also were in Pueblo for regionals on Monday. Those athletes have not been asked to sign a similar waiver. DHS softball played Montrose on Sept. 18. Days later, it was revealed Montrose players tested positive for COVID-19. But Durango softball played against Montezuma-Cortez on Monday and continued to practice all week and will play a doubleheader at Grand Junction Central on Saturday, No players underwent school-mandated testing. Knorr said DHS found out about the Montrose cases second-hand on Thursday.
The inconsistencies have left football parents feeling as though their child’s activity is being scrutinized with stricter rules enforced than on other sports in the same school and county.
Knorr said conversations regarding athlete testing first came up when the first contact sport got approved. He said the district and Mercy Sports Medicine athletic trainers liked the idea of adding additional safeguards for the first contact sport.
“(SJBPH) agreed as well that taking precautions, and taking extra steps to ensure our students’ safety is not a bad idea,” Knorr said. “If we feel it behooves the entire school to test our kids who are on the field playing somebody else and in close contact with those students, we might consider doing tests for those kids who were on the field. Research says wait three to four days to get more of an indication of if they picked anything up. That’s why we are also considering remote learning during the waiting time between competition and testing.”
Fields have looked different since practice began. Durango players have stayed in masks at all times on the field, practicing in position-based pods. Bayfield coaches and players wear masks at all times, but players are able to remove their mask while doing activities.
“We can adapt pretty easily with the masks because we don’t have huge numbers,” Heide said. “We have about 45 kids out. It’s a little easier to deal with than teams that have 75 or 100. We are in preliminary stages of learning what we can do in practices. We want to make sure we can do a bit of full-team stuff, 11-on-11 and see what the parameters are. My understanding, we can go about 20 or 25 minutes of that at a time.”
At Class 1A Ignacio High School, head coach Alfonso “Ponch” Garcia has roughly 25 athletes participating in football, which makes it easier to follow guidelines during practice.
“If we break down into positions, we don’t have that many,” Garcia said. “We can spread everybody out no problem. It’s different at a small school like ours. I feel bad for the big schools that might need to use the entire field to spread everyone out or use two fields. If you break the rules by one hair, you’re going to be held accountable for all that stuff.”
According to SJBPH, how a team practices could be key if a team is put into quarantine if a player tests positive. If teams practice in pods based on position, only the other players within that pod would be subject to a 14-day quarantine. But if a team practices entirely together as a whole and one player tests positive for COVID-19, then the entire team will be placed in a 14-day quarantine.
That is creating obstacles for coaches at DHS to navigate as they get ready to host 2019 state runner-up Pueblo South in a Week 1 game at 6 p.m. Oct. 9. Pueblo South beat Durango by one score for the league championship and again by one score in the state quarterfinals a year ago. Knorr said visiting fans would be allowed into the game out of the 175 spectators DHS will allow Week 1. Family members will get priority in purchasing tickets online ahead of the game.
Durango will not have overnight stays on road trips this year. Bayfield is planning on overnight hotel stays for its longer road trips. Heide said he believes no more than two players will be able to share one room this year.
While coaches and players now have opponents to prepare for and a kickoff date set, plenty of questions are left to be answered about how the season will play out and if teams will be able to make it through a six-game regular season. Knorr said any major decisions made by 9-R would come from the district’s COVID response team, DHS principal Jon Hoerl and himself.
“We have Colorado guidelines, CHSAA guidelines and district guidelines,” Knorr said. “Authorities and experts are telling us what is best practice. We will try to execute that for all of our students, football or not, as safe as possible. I am charged with trying to make sports as safe as possible. We aim to control what we can control and do it as safely as we can. We hope we don’t have to cross these bridges, but the reason we made the waiver is just preparing for the worst. Our teachers have worked their butts off to return to school and make it safe. We owe it to them to follow guidelines and go above and beyond if we can control it.
“Usually, the teams that are disciplined and pay attention to details and can do all the small things like wear a mask and stay six feet apart, those teams are usually better in crunch time. If we come in a little tighter than other schools with our execution of these guidelines, it will make us a tougher opponent. Maybe it will be the eight teams that make it into the playoffs who haven’t been shut down. We have goals we want to achieve, which is absolutely to win a state championship, and we have the guys to do it. We’ve had football activities going on since June when they first started allowing anything to happen. I think we have done a good job. We are fortunate not have anything shut us down. Our goal is to continue to control what we can control and hope for the best.”