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Tim Schwartz: Maryland demands high school sports come back next month. Now what? | COMMENTARY

In this file photo, River Hill football players run out on the field a game against Long Reach at River Hill in 2017. Maryland high school sports, postponed for the coronavirus pandemic, may return as soon as October, reversing a decision earlier this month to play all sports in the spring. Now what?
In this file photo, River Hill football players run out on the field a game against Long Reach at River Hill in 2017. Maryland high school sports, postponed for the coronavirus pandemic, may return as soon as October, reversing a decision earlier this month to play all sports in the spring. Now what? (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Are you ready for some football?

Yes, Maryland — and I won’t say Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association because these decisions seem to unfortunately be going above their collective heads — is giving local school systems the choice to begin playing high school sports as early as Oct. 7.

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This comes not even two weeks after the MPSSAA released their state-approved plan to play three eight-week seasons beginning in February.

So, which is it? School systems now have a choice to make, and the clock is ticking.

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Is Maryland in the business of state championships, or simply providing kids the opportunity to participate? Because, frankly, it can’t go both ways.

Which is the real plan? Both have laid the framework for a “culminating event” — not flatly saying whether that’s a state championship or tournament to avoid a letdown — but nothing said Thursday by Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon, Gov. Larry Hogan or the MPSSAA made it clear which of the two plans will have state championships, if they even happen. It can’t be both.

If the counties hit hardest by the coronavirus — Montgomery, Prince George’s, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard — decide to stick with the two-semester plan and start play in February, and the rest of the state plans to play starting in October, there simply can’t be state tournaments.

Isn’t that what people really wanted? Or, was it just a chance to play and get kids back on the field? I guess that depends on who you ask.

If the state came out and declared one plan as having state championships, that would certainly sway decision-making. But nobody is ready to commit to that right now.

What a mess.

Logistically, asking a blindsided school system to prepare for a high school sports season in less than two weeks while kids are still in virtual learning is a nightmare.

For now, timelines don’t even add up. School systems need to make their decision quickly and likely without knowing what other counties are doing. Are they going to have emergency board of education meetings for superintendents to make their pitch? Howard County, for example, doesn’t have its next board meeting scheduled until Oct. 8.

Starting with the obvious, how will school systems handle the coronavirus? Do coaches have to wear masks? What about student-athletes? Will they have to wear it on the sidelines? Will anyone enforce it?

“I’m not the mask police,” one person told me Thursday.

The NFL fined five coaches $100,000 for their inability to properly wear a mask during games, and that’s with daily testing and contact tracing. Will there be consequences for high school coaches who wear masks as a chinstrap?

Surely school systems can’t afford testing for everyone. If there is an outbreak, can they even do proper contact tracing? I would doubt that. If there’s an outbreak and a team has to cancel games, how are they made up? How long do they need to stay off the field? Just look at how many games MLB lost early in the season because of coronavirus outbreaks.

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What about the coaches who will inevitably opt out? There will be some, and schools will have to find new coaches in record time. Heck, some schools still don’t have coaches for all their fall sports teams yet. You can throw regular hiring practices out the window.

What happens when a head coach gets COVID-19? Code of Maryland regulations says volunteer coaches cannot serve as head coach and shall only work under the head coach. Most teams don’t have paid assistants. Sure, the JV coach could do it — if they are playing, too — but that wouldn’t work for baseball or softball when JV teams play at different locations.

How about the inequity of getting kids to and from practice? Will the school systems provide buses? Will they be cleaned regularly between trips? Even in a hybrid setting, kids won’t be in the building every day, but practices wait for no one and are 5-6 days a week.

What about equipment? Many schools have frozen athletic budgets during the pandemic. Is there enough time to make sure every program has what it needs to safely operate?

Daylight Savings Time is Nov. 1. The sun will set at 5:05 p.m. that Sunday. How will, say Howard County golfers who don’t finish virtual learning until 3:15 p.m., be able to start matches after school ends and still complete nine holes before it gets too dark to finish? Will golf courses even, with such short notice, be willing to sacrifice valuable afternoon tee times during the month of October?

What about field hockey, a sport that — when not playing on lighted turf fields — routinely battles finishing before darkness as a usual season progresses into October?

Teams will fight for field use, and it will be a tough task for athletic directors to figure that out equitably. Will junior varsity teams play and practice, or do they get squeezed out and programs are forced to cut participation in half?

How about team selections during tryouts? Are kids really expected to go from 0 to 100? This isn’t 1985.

Numerous rec leagues have started up for high school athletes, who have paid to play. Are they going to opt out of the high school season, or try to do both?

Will fans be allowed at games? What about parents or the media? Well, of course, the state relaxed health guidelines after Hogan’s news conference Thursday, and now nonprofessional sports gatherings can have no more than 50 percent, or 100 people — whichever is fewer — indoors, and 50 percent, or 250 people, outdoors.

It’s now up to individual counties to make a decision, but is there even a right answer? No matter which plan they pick, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The state has set up nobody for success.

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