After several postponements, the Howard County school system announced Wednesday that the 2020-21 winter athletic season has been canceled.
The announcement, which came via a school system press release, cited “continuing high rates of COVID-19 infection in Howard County” as the reason for cancellation.
“The metrics are as high in Howard County as they have ever been right now...this is the spike they all talked about coming out of Christmas and New Year’s,” Howard County Coordinator of Athletics John Davis said. “So when you factor in the numbers, along with [Jan. 11] being the last gasp date in our minds in terms of being able to start practices and get in any kind of winter season, we felt the only option left was to cancel.”
The release stated that winter sports coaches can continue engaging virtually with student athletes through Feb. 13. The approved plan calls for fall sports to begin on Feb. 13 and conclude competitions on April 17. Spring sports in the plan would begin April 17 and run to June 19.
“I feel for the kids, the coaches and the community,” Davis said. “Believe me, I look forward to getting the athletes back out on the fields and courts as much as anyone. Right now, though, the metrics are not in our favor.”
On Wednesday, Maryland reached an unwelcome milestone, with the state reporting that there are 1,862 people currently hospitalized with the coronavirus — the most since officials began tracking the pandemic in March.
The statewide seven-day positivity rate, which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week, is 9.44% — the highest since May 13. The state’s weekly rolling average new-case rate is on the upswing again at 44.18 per 100,000 — lower than the peaks in December but much higher than the summer when it hovered between 7 and 15 per 100,000.
Throughout the pandemic, Howard County’s numbers have been slightly better than the state’s, but in December, the county reached 10,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic and nearly 200 Howard countians have died of COVID-19.
The county’s weekly positivity rate is 7.4%, which is the highest rate since early June when testing was at a fraction of what it is now. The county’s weekly new-case rate is rising again at 34.9 per 100,000, which would be the highest ever for the county if not for a five-day stretch in mid-December.
One day before Howard County’s announcement to cancel in-person winter sports, Carroll County officially kicked off its winter season with a wrestling match between South Carroll and Winters Mill. The basketball schedule for Carroll County schools begins Wednesday and will run through the second week in February.
Davis said that every county is dealing with different metrics and return-to-play procedures.
“Carroll is obviously a unique situation, if you look around they are the only ones playing … and more power to them. But Howard County has different metrics and different restrictions in place put in by the health department,” Davis said. “No more than 10 people are currently allowed to gather inside in Howard County, so that obviously keeps us from possibly being able to get in a gym for basketball or wrestling. We may be one of the first counties to officially cancel, but I am confident you are going to see several others follow suit in the near future.”
Howard County had previously adopted the plan approved by the Maryland State Board of Education in late October that would have had the winter season run from Dec. 7 to Feb. 13. That start date had been postponed twice, once to Jan. 4 and then later to Jan. 11.
Under state rules, athletes must practice for 20 days before they can take part in competitions. With no wiggle room in terms of adjusting the ending point for winter athletics from the approved Feb. 13 date, the window for competition vanished quickly.
“Once we as a county adopted the revised plan, the seasons were set and that Feb. 13 end date for winter sports was not adjustable. That was something everyone knew going in, so now we are going to turn our entire focus to the fall [season],” Davis said.
He added that there is still every intention to have a fall season start in February.
“We are preparing to start Feb. 13 until we are told otherwise. We want to be able to give those kids a solid opportunity at a season and I feel like we should have a better shot because most of the sports are outside except for volleyball and cheerleading,” Davis said. “If we get into February and things haven’t improved, well then we will cross that bridge when we get to it.”
The release states that the current start dates for fall and winter sports are “with the hope that the distribution of a vaccine will significantly improve the community health metrics.”
In late October, the Board of Education determined the health parameters the school system will follow when deciding on when students can and cannot gather, and the current metrics are much higher than what would allow sports to return.
According to the approved chart, the county must have a weekly positivity rate under 5% and a weekly case rate under 10 per 100,000 to have hybrid learning and athletic practices or competitions. If the weekly positivity rate is between 5.01% and 5.13% and the seven-day case rate is between 10 and 20 per 100,000, the chart shows that some in-person programs and athletic conditioning can occur.
But if the weekly positivity rate is higher than 5.13% and the weekly case rate is over 20 per 100,000, no in-person activities, including athletics and small group programs, will be conducted.
The 2020-21 winter sports season becomes the fourth straight athletics season in Howard County that has been impacted by the pandemic.
The 2019-20 winter sports season — specifically the girls and boys basketball state tournaments — were canceled in the early stages of the pandemic. At the same time, spring sports practices had just gotten underway, but school closures led to a postponement and then cancellation of that season.
The start of the fall athletics season was then postponed for all Maryland public schools, with the MPSSAA planning a potential restart date of Feb. 1 with three shortened seasons. In the fall, though, as the coronavirus metrics across the state improved, the MPSSAA changed course and pushed up the start of the athletics season to Dec. 7.
However, the state’s coronavirus metrics, including the numbers in Howard County, drastically worsened in early November, surged again due to Thanksgiving and have since remained at levels higher than anytime since June.