116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A year ago this week, Iowa High School Athletic Association leaders were sitting in a room inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines trying to decide what to do about the boys' state basketball finals.
The NCAA had just canceled all winter and spring championships, including the men's and women's basketball tournaments, and K-12 school districts were postponing events and calling off practices after it became clear COVID-19 was spreading in Iowa.
'From that point to where we are now, we were making decisions and recommendations based on limited information,' said Tom Keating, executive director of the association that governs all boys' high school sports in the state.
The association decided to let the championship games continue March 14, 2020, but limited fans to 100 per school.
Sports have escaped some of Iowa's most severe restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iowa was the only state in the country to allow high school baseball and softball last summer.
When COVID-19 cases were surging again in November, Gov. Kim Reynolds prohibited indoor gatherings of more than 15 people, but exempted high school and college sports as long as organizers required fans to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
Although some school districts, including Iowa City and Des Moines, just started 100 percent in-person schooling Feb. 15 in response to a state law, high school sports have maintained practices, games and, in many cases, tournaments.
'We weren't held, necessarily, to the same stringent standards,' Keating said of high school sports. 'Part of it was the protocols we were able to put in place. We had more direct supervision on the people involved in the activities. We may have two, three or four coaches directing 18 or 19 kids. There was somebody supervising those protocols. We felt good that the kids were doing what we needed them to do.'
Not everyone agrees with state decisions allowing sports to proceed.
'I had a hard time with this when it started up,' said Colleen Elliott, supervisor of health services for the College Community School District, which serves about 5,800 students from Linn, Benton and Johnson counties. 'If we're still in (learning) cohorts, why are we back to playing sports full time? Where is our priority here?'
Elliott said she sees particular risks for youth club sports where teams from multiple states are gathering for tournaments every weekend.
While the IHSAA and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union have told school districts to comply with state COVID-19 restrictions, they have left many other decisions to the school districts.
Iowa City West has required all athletes, coaches and fans to wear masks — a stricter policy than many of the schools they play. At a regional final Feb. 23 in Iowa City, the West girls' basketball team was masked on and off the court, while Davenport North players did not wear masks while playing.
'I have to give a lot of credit to our coaching staff in our girls' basketball program,' said Craig Huegel, Iowa City West athletics director.
'Since the beginning of the winter season, they have adopted the mantra of 'whatever it takes for us to play'. They are very good about wearing their masks. They schedule hand sanitizing breaks into the middle of practice. We try to do everything we can to reduce risk.'
Shannon and Isaac Wilmington drove from Davenport to Iowa City to watch their daughter, Ivy, play in what would be the last basketball game of her senior season. Shannon said it's hard for anyone to know if COVID-19 precautions will keep kids safe.
'They are doing the best they can with the situation,' she said. 'We're just happy to get a season.'
Lots of Iowa high school teams canceled competitions over the year because of COVID-19. It's usually not clear when a school cancels whether a student on the team tested positive or if members were quarantining because of exposure elsewhere.
Keating said the number of COVID-19 cases he's aware of that were spread among teams in Iowa are limited.
'What we're hearing from schools was if they had to shut down — quarantine for 14 days — it was contracted outside the team. And so they didn't spread it to other groups, they shut it down,' he said.
Cedar Rapids Washington High canceled its junior varsity men's swimming invitational in January because, with athletes and coaches for 12 teams, there were too many people to maintain social distancing, said Grant Schultz, associate principal and activities director.
'Having to make a decision far enough out, but still not knowing what things will be like when it would have happened,' Schultz said, 'you tend to be on a more conservative side.'
Washington started off the basketball season allowing each player to invite two family members to watch. That expanded to all family members within the household. The last week of the season, Washington allowed immediate family plus two others — so grandparents or neighbors could come, Schultz said.
West Delaware High hosted the Wamac wrestling tournament Feb. 1 with no fans, Assistant Principal/Activities Director Matt Weis said. With 14 schools in the Eastern Iowa conference, allowing fans, too, would have meant unsafe crowding.
'There was a time in the winter season when numbers were starting to rise and people were really concerned we couldn't make it through,' Weis said. 'Our fans were very grateful our kids were able to compete and keep going.'
Masks a lightning rod
Mask use has been contentious in Iowa. And the degree to which a school district enforces mask wearing reflects the community's view on the subject.
Photos from the state wrestling tournament, Feb. 17-20 in Des Moines, show inconsistent mask use, despite the IHSAA and Wells Fargo Arena requiring masks for fans.
'It was probably 50-50 on wearing masks, especially on wearing masks properly,' said Huegel, who attended the tournament Feb. 18.
Keating said the association hoped fans would follow signs and materials sent to the teams.
'We did see some people who didn't have masks on,' he said. 'They were directed by security to resolve that. Some were eating and that's a hard one to say, 'Were they eating or not eating?'"
But as the week went on, security ramped up and there was better mask use, Keating said.
In sports, where athletes want to give 110 percent and fans believe their cheers can help the team win, sometimes passion overwhelms common sense.
Like when a coach pulls down his face mask to talk with his closely-huddled team during a timeout, even though health experts say COVID-19 is spread through droplets from a person's mouth or nose.
'At the collegiate level you see it, at the pro level,' Keating said. 'It's kind of like 'it won't matter if I do this for 15 seconds' when we know it is a big deal. We will continue to remind our folks about that. The safety has to be first.'
Keating said he's talked with other state sports leaders about how to stay vigilant about COVID-19, which likely will be around for some time even with increasing vaccinations.
'Once we were allowed to play and people have gotten used to the games going on, it's easy to take that for granted and start to let slip those things that have allowed us to do this,' he said. 'That's the one danger of getting back to what we call normal.'
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