Diligence and persistence matter in high school sports, COVID-19 pandemic era.
While Hawaii maintains some of the lowest rates and numbers in the nation, the state’s high school student-athletes and the communities that support them are bearing the brunt of complete cancellations. State restrictions and a City and County of Honolulu tier format — both are factors according to Oahu Interscholastic Association Executive Director Raymond Fujino — continue to draw large-scale discussion across the islands. Fujino declined to comment on record.
In Utah and a large majority of the nation, game were played, practices were conducted and seasons were completed. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, fall and spring sports in public-school leagues have been cancelled. Former Kahuku girls basketball coach Wendy Anae, now athletic director at Timpview High School, doesn’t see a substantial difference.
“Hawaii could adopt the same protocol and procedures to allow the keiki to resume organized sports if they were comfortable with the protocol and procedures to mitigate the risk,” Anae said on Friday.
Anae was part of a panel organized by Councilmember Andria Tupola for a community forum on Zoom. Tupola has been steadfast in her push to activate high school sports in a post-holiday stretch that has case numbers spiking locally and nationally.
“I specifically suggest we modify Tiers 2 and 3,” Tupola said, referring to the format of the previous City and County of Honolulu regime.
All four mayors participated in the forum, though none would commit to a specific plan to help high school sports return. Honolulu Mayor-Elect Rick Blangiardi said his team is working on a plan in the coming two weeks.
Mayor-Elect Blangiardi, a former Hawaii football coach, has been open about his desire to jump-start youth sports.
“I want to push on the tier system. We need to be very cautious. I want to be respectful of that, (but) I’m going to do everything I can to encourage,” he said. “We want to talk about flexibility, to have some latitude. What can we allow and not allow? We will put a blueprint together for the next two weeks. As it stands right now, with vaccinations, how soon can we get to participation? Vaccinations are not the be-all, end-all, but what I heard tonight about mask wearing and so on, I want to get our young people back to playing sports.”
Youth sports leagues and tournaments at Parks and Recreation facilities have not been played since March, when the first lockdown began.
The state and the four leagues in the islands have not divulged any information about replicating or borrowing from states that have played fall sports. That has led to a rise in disapproval from the public, particularly families of student-athletes who have lost their senior seasons.
Utah experienced a few stoppages in its statewide football schedule during the fall, but utilized its process and played the year out. What the Beehive State learned is that an emphasis on social distancing and full protocols in the bleachers — and anywhere else people gathered — were as crucial as restrictions at practices and games.
“The impact of positive cases came more from sitting in a classroom than a field,” Anae said. “All sports completed successfully. We did have some hiccups with games being cancelled. Within a team, there was a threshold of three positive tests, and they would shut down and go into quarantine. I’m happy to say even though some games were cancelled, we were able to play fall sports successfully with championships.”
As expected, regions with higher levels of case counts took action.
“Utah County had the highest spike in the state, so the governor shut down spectators (at games) until the numbers went back down,” Anae added.
Timpview split its football team into three groups to help mitigate risk. On campus, students were in a hybrid attendance format, going to class on two days and distance learning another two days.
“We’re now open (full time),” Anae noted.
Dr. Elizabeth Ignacio expressed concern with recent numbers on Oahu, with a single-day case number above 300.
“Our case counts are hovering or over 300 and positivity rates have creeped up to 400, even 500. When we compare numbers to the continent, the critical number of cases is about 500 where we exhaust resources and (hospital) staffing,” Dr. Ignacio said. “We’re in the midst of what appears to be a surge.”
Yet, the doctor believes community spread and the inner workings in high school athletics can be separated. Utah, she noted, is a solid example of what could be executed in Hawaii.
“I certainly hope so. It was obviously well thought out, fluid and adaptive relative to data, and that’s what I would like to see happen here. In Utah, the trend (of rising case numbers) wasn’t youth sports or practice itself. It was the social gatherings around it,” Dr. Ignacio said. “Buy-in from athletes and parents is very important to the point where it becomes second nature. It would’ve been ideal to start with that last year, but what’s done is done.”
The growth of club sports activities on the West Coast, and the constant training in local parks on Oahu, indicate both the demand and the possibility. The decline of mental health is real, she added.
“As a result of a survey, pre-COVID, there was less than a a 10-percent rate of those athletes (out of) nearly 90,000 athletes of moderate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But late summer, early fall, an increase of 30 to 40 percent of those symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Dr. Ignacio said.
“Hawaii recently led the nation in teenage suicide (per capita). We might be able to ask ourselves, is this more than our youth can handle? We need to provide, safely. My kids are ‘Iolani student-athletes and I’m grateful to the athletic directors, Eddie Maruyama and Wendell Look, and (school president) Timothy Catrell for getting the kids back into some semblance of sports effectively. It’s affect them positively.”
Longtime Konawaena girls basketball coach Bobbie Awa has guided the Wildcats to nine Division I state championships.
“Losing the season has been very, very disappointing. All these kids that want to get out there, they use their high school careers as opportunities to go on to the next level. I try my hardest to get my kids to play at the next level,” Awa said. “Having to cancel our traveling last summer is not helping them, to be honest with you. The advice I give them is to do a little more. We coaches have to do a little more in the recruiting process. These kids work so hard in the offseason, their families are really trying, but they’re going to have to work a little harding sending out (game) film, skill films.”
Awa noted that everything is closed on the Big Island, though courts are accessible by permit.
“We’re not allowed to scrimmage, so for us to run a league right now is impossible. We’re a little strapped on this end,” she said. “It was nice to hear Mayor (Mitch) Roth on (the forum) tonight, so now we can go back to the county and see if that’s something we can do.”
Hawaii Preparatory Academy opened its doors to in-person instruction in September. Athletic Director Stephen Perry was one of the few who voted against cancelling the fall and winter sports seasons of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation this week.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have face to face since September. We moved our trainer’s office to the outside under a tent by the gym. A lot of fresh air and space,” Perry said. “We clean everything all the time. The facility, equipment. Teachers and students wearing masks all day. The kids didn’t like it at all, but after a couple of days, they bought into it. We encouraged traffic flow in the gym area. That’s helped. And some common sense things: signage and hand sanitizer everywhere.”
HPA also limited groups to no more than 20, often splitting those up.
“The distancing is important and we’ve been following that. Reminding the coaches and kids over and over again. Knock on wood,” Perry said.
‘Iolani football coach and co-athletic director Wendell Look shared the program’s experience with COVID-19. An assistant coach contracted the virus during the summer.
“We were able to contact trace, tested our staff and our trainers who were around him at that time. The ones who had close contact did test,” Look said. “A sound plan, but it’s not foolproof. It was contained to that one coach and, fortunately, everybody else tested negative and recovered.”
The school has been ahead of the curve, producing its own face shields. Athletes wear goggles during daily, individual, protocoled drills. As of early January, the Interscholastic League of Honolulu intends to have a football season in the fall.
Meanwhile, on Kauai, Mayor Derek Kawakami’s stringent standards through the pandemic have led to perhaps more freedom on the fields and courts than anywhere else in the state. Leagues and tournaments are permitted if they meet the requirement of a safety plan with full protocols. Group limitations at parks are at a robust 25 individuals.
“We’ve been able to get to this point. Here’s what I know: it’s more than the fun and games. Historically, whenever there’s been adversity or disaster, there is sports. It has to be about the social aspect, especially for our children and their parents. You want children to feel like there’s something normal in their lives,” he said. “In Boston, it was the Red Sox that helped the city to heal. Internment camps, they picked up America’s pastime. We’re cognizant that for our students in a small, rural community, sports are sometimes a window to a higher education, even professional. We prioritize balance and how we can come back from the pandemic holistically, policy changes to try and keep our community open as possible. We still have a lot of work to do.”
The Kauai Interscholastic Federation would appear to be in position to play high school sports safely, but the mayor won’t push for it. Most football games are played in the county’s Vidinha Stadium.
“KIF sports would be a call that comes from the State Department of Education and their governing board. They would have to submit the same safety protocol plan as other organized sports if they are utilizing county parks,” he said.
Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino is an avid sports fan. He was an athlete, as was his son, former MLB player Shane Victorino.
“I would love to have high school sports, (but) to be honest, I think we’re not going to be able to do the sports we want to do. Let’s do all of our spring sports, give these kids a chance to play. Sports that don’t have a lot of closer contact,” he said. “I’m working with a lot of our trainers and coaches, and it has to be all the leagues together. We’ve got to wait three or four weeks, and that cuts into the winter season. We need to work first in our families, then our community will be healthy. In our county, it is community spread, not our visitors, so we’ve got to take the proper action.”
The lack of interaction between the Department of Health and high school organizations was the result of changeover in the DOH.
“We’ve had several meetings with them,” said Chris Chun, executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association. “Once the leadership change happened, it took awhile to meet again.”
The process has been a grind.
“The DOE gave the DOH their guidelines, and we got feedback from both. They told us they would draft their own set of guidelines. That’s where we are with the DOH,” Chun said.
Nearly two weeks ago, the HHSAA cancelled winter sports state championships. That gave individual leagues a chance to extend regular-season schedules. Instead, nearly every league axed winter and postponed fall sports.
The HHSAA has been in communication with Mayor-Elect Blangiardi.
“Even before he got elected, I was contacting him about restarting something in Tier 2 or 3. Now, the case numbers are getting big,” Chun said. “The principals wanted to focus on in-person learning before allowing sports back on campus. The counties are influential. If those reopen, that’ll get us back in the communities.”
Chun has a admittedly vested interest in getting spring sports back in action.
“This is my son’s senior year (of baseball). I’ve coached him since he was little, and coached a lot of his friends. He lost his junior season last year and I do not want him to lose his senior season this year,” Chun said. “We want to be safe for everyone first.”
Former Roosevelt, Hawaii and CFL standout Chad Owens is pleading with officials to give sports a try.
“We owe our athletes a chance to take a shot. We’ve been preaching to athletes their whole careers, don’t take no for an answer. There’s a lot of futures at stake right now,” Owens said. “I needed my senior year. I didn’t get a scholarship offer. I needed as many games, as many sports, to give myself a chance and I had an opportunity to walk on at the University of Hawaii.”
Maybe it is simply easier for a coach and athlete to borrow from a winner.
“We have a possibility here. Aunty Wendy (Anae) and what they’ve done in Utah is a playbook we should follow. We should give our student-athletes a shot. I feel like kids are last on the totem pole when they should be first. They’re our future leaders. Some need that senior year, one more film, one more play,” Owens said. “We’ve all been forced to evolve. Right now, we need to have an open, open mind to all possibilities. I love everyone’s vision and want-to. We have to make it happen.”
Quarterback trainer Keli‘i Tilton also spoke on the panel.
“We’re teaching these kids life lessons and it’s kind of been taken away because there’s less interaction,” he said. “Some kids who can’t play, they’re out getting jobs now. They’re teenagers once and we want them to enjoy that. Once they’re working, they can work for the rest of their lives.”