Those who have maintained since July that Illinois high schools could safely conduct sports in a pandemic are about to get their wish.
With Friday’s announcement by Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike that state COVID-19 regions in Phase 4 can play all high school sports, even those deemed “high-risk” like football and basketball, athletic directors around Southern Illinois were wearing out their cellphones and Zoom platforms.
Region 5, which encompasses nearly every high school in the area, is one of three COVID-19 regions in the state in Phase 4. The others are Region 3 (Springfield) and Region 6 (Champaign).
Three other regions are in Tier 1, which permits low- and moderate-risk sports to play games, and five others are in Tier 2, which only allows low-risk sports to play games. One of the five regions in Tier 2 is Region 4, which includes Chester, Nashville and Sparta.
Carbondale athletic director Mark Albertini might have been the busiest employee at his school after Ezike’s announcement.
“I’m thrilled and really excited right now, but I have a million and one questions,” he said. “I was on a Zoom meeting with our boys and girls soccer teams this afternoon and they have the same questions.
“Do we have to wear a mask? Will all the sports be played at the same time? But they are ecstatic. I think if you told any kid in Southern Illinois right now that they could play basketball, for instance, but had to wear a mask, they’d be fine with it.”
According to an emailed statement from IHSA Assistant Executive Director Matt Troha, masks must be worn in practice and competition. Bench players and game personnel should adhere to social distancing guidelines, and schools must follow mitigations and guidelines set by IHSA.
In Phase 4, a maximum of 50 spectators are allowed at games, Troha wrote.
Ezike’s announcement Friday, which came during Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s daily coronavirus news briefing, completes a dramatic and stunning turnaround for IHSA sports. In a week’s time, Region 5 went all the way from Tier 3, which allows nothing to be played, into Phase 4.
Ezike hailed the regions that have made progress, but also said caution still needs to be enforced for the state to prevent a regression in positivity rates.
“I’m cautiously optimistic with the trends we are seeing,” she said, “but I want to stress how important it is for us to continue our public health actions of wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.
“Getting to the end of this pandemic will be about the choices we make.”
IHSA sports have been mostly shut down since the pandemic brought professional and college sports to a screeching halt in mid-March. The boys state basketball championship tournament was canceled, and spring sports bit the dust in late April.
Golf, cross country, girls tennis and swimming/diving were permitted in the fall all the way to the sectional level. Football, volleyball and boys soccer were moved to the spring.
Winter sports were paused in November after IHSA schools who hinted at contravening Pritzker’s wishes not to play basketball were informed they could risk a loss of public funding. Attorneys counseled most schools it wasn’t worth the risk for liability concerns.
Advocates of playing sports in a pandemic pointed to bordering states who have been able to conduct high school sports without serious issues. They also worried about student-athletes’ mental health.
The state government has been undeterred by critics since COVID-19 hit, basing its decisions on science and data instead of feelings and raw emotions. Some observers took to social media Friday after Ezike’s comments to imply that the move was politically motivated.
No matter the reasons, the next big date for student-athletes, coaches, administrators and fans is Wednesday. That’s when the IHSA is expected to unveil a revamped athletic calendar that could offer answers as to when basketball teams can possibly play games. At the least, according to Troha's statement, basketball teams must conduct 12 days of practice prior to their first contest.
Asked if that day would feel like Christmas to an extent, Albertini simply laughed.
“A lot of people are going to be happy, even if they wanted the puppy and got the LEGO set,” he said. “As long as they can compete with their friends, at this point, they are going to be happy.”