For the first time in 11 months, in-person high school athletics will be returning for Howard County public schools.
The Howard County school system confirmed in a release Friday afternoon that the fall sports season will officially begin Feb. 13, in accordance with the county’s previously adopted plan by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association that allows for modified competitive seasons through June.
“The fall athletics season will begin on Feb. 13 as previously scheduled, with tryouts and conditioning building up to the first scheduled contests on March 5,” according to the release. “All students, regardless of their decision for in-person or virtual instruction, may participate in in-person athletics.”
Under state rules, athletes must practice for 20 days before they can take part in competitions.
Fall sports in Howard County include football, soccer, cross country, cheerleading, golf, field hockey and volleyball. The release states that school leaders and coaches will provide more information on each specific sport to families and students in preparation for the start of the season.
In late October, Howard County adopted the MPSSAA plan that would have the winter athletic season run from Dec. 7 to Feb. 13, fall sports start Feb. 13 and end April 17, and spring sports begin April 17 and continue through June 19.
At the time of the cancellation on Jan. 6, however, Howard County Coordinator of Athletics John Davis stated that the county still believed it would have fall and spring seasons. With the most recent announcement, that looks to be coming to fruition.
Carroll County has been the only local school system in Maryland conducting a high school winter sports season. Baltimore-area private schools competing in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland and Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association have the option to begin winter sports early this month.
The decision to move forward with the fall athletics season comes amid the school system’s planning to begin its hybrid learning model on March 1.
When the district said in early January that it planned to have fall and spring sports this academic year, it was under the condition that the distribution of a vaccine would “significantly improve the community health metrics.”
Since that message, the metrics in the county and the state have indeed improved, but they’re still not at the low levels they were last summer and early fall.
Howard County’s seven-day positivity rate is 5.7%, while the weekly rolling average new-case rate in the county is 18.33 per 100,000 residents. Both figures, which are often cited as key metrics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, are both much lower than they were a month ago.
When the county announced the cancellation of winter sports on Jan. 6, the county’s weekly positivity rate was 7.4% — the highest rate since early June when testing was at a fraction of what it is now. The weekly new-case rate was rapidly rising, and five days later reached a peak of 48.7 per 100,000. Since then, though, the county’s weekly rolling case rate has decreased in 21 of the last 25 days and the seven-day positivity rate has fallen in 19 of 25 days.
While the metrics are much improved, they’re not at the levels that would have allowed for sports to return if the school system were still following the metrics chart the Board of Education approved in October.
The chart was meant to be used by the district when considering reopening decisions and whether to allow in-person services and extracurricular activities like sports. According to the chart, the county would need to have a weekly positivity rate under 5% and a weekly case rate under 10 per 100,000 to have hybrid learning and sports.
However, the district and the school board changed course following Gov. Larry Hogan’s surprise announcement on Jan. 21 that he would explore consequences for school systems that didn’t get students back in classrooms by March 1. Five days after the announcement, the school board approved a hybrid model that begins March 1 and phases groups of students into school buildings through April 12.
During the meeting at which the board approved the hybrid model, school system Superintendent Michael Martirano said the board-approved chart would be a “consideration” but not the sole factor moving forward.