Athletic Director tackles IHSA pandemic safety guidelines

Kate Hill, Staff Reporter

With the winter sports season rolling in, COVID-19 cases are growing at a rapid rate, and Illinois state guidelines have tightened again. The uncertainty of whether or not student athletes will have a season each season has been a challenge throughout the year for Athletic Director Troy Parola.

“The Illinois High School Association has been trying to make things work, and when we got close to the start of the school year, the ruling came down that they were going to take the originally three sport seasons and divide them into four,” Parola said. 

At the time of the interview with Parola on Oct. 19, the traditional winter sports were left in the winter season. 

But by Oct. 27, there were already new health guidelines in place, changing boys and girls basketball from a medium-risk sport to a high-risk one and moving both teams’ seasons to the spring. There were also talks regarding wrestling, another high-risk sport, being moved to the summer.

While it’s the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) that makes the decisions on what sports are labeled as high-risk, IHSA met with IDPH on Friday, Oct.23, about options that could be taken to allow for basketball to be conducted safely by IHSA schools this winter. 

By Nov. 19, though, IHSA announced a pause in the winter sports season with Dec. 2 set as a re-evaluation date.  

“All IHSA sports and activities will cease by Nov. 20 for what we hope is a short-term pause,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson in a Nov. 19 press release. “Given the rising COVID-19 cases in our state and region, we support the Governor’s mitigations and believe it is imperative for everyone in the state to do their part in following them so that we can return to high school sports participation as soon as possible.”

Given all the guidelines, and changing guidelines at that, Parola said he has been trying to ensure that student athletes have opportunities to have a resemblance of their sport’s season when possible. 

“It is stressful that with all the programs we have to ensure that the [COVID-19 safety processes are] followed, and the attendance is accurate, so we can follow through on the contact tracing if we need to,” Parola said.

Per IHSA guidelines, if a student-athlete contracts COVID-19, then Parola must contact the nurses in the school, in which the nurses will utilize a form to contact IDPH, which will contact trace the student who tested positive by asking that student a series of questions. Based on how the student answers those questions, the Lake County Health Department will reach out to MHS and advise what steps the school has to take next.

In addition to following health guidelines, the Athletic Department has also had to adjust and readjust sports schedules as those guidelines change.

“All of our schedules that were in place got basically torn up and thrown in the wind, and we have to reschedule all these contests by giving good guidelines throughout and fill the schedules for student athletes,” Parola said. 

An added complication to the scheduling process is that the guidelines state schools are only allowed to compete against schools in Lake and McHenry Counties, known as Region 9, but there aren’t a lot of schools in Region 9, particularly  for every sport, which also affects the schedule.

An additional frustration for school coaches is that not all club sports are following the same guidelines as school sports.

Wrestling has been shut down inside high schools in Illinois. There are outside clubs and facilities that are able to have wrestlers compete, but unfortunately, athletes are not allowed to have any physical contact/wrestling at the school,” Wrestling Head Coach Craig Stocker said. 

Unlike wrestling, boys and girls bowling have been labeled as low-risk sports, but such sports have been affected by the new COVID-19 guidelines, too. 

Senior bowler Jackie Spencer said she will have to adapt to wearing masks and social distancing with a lane in between each person once bowling resumes.. 

“Restrictions for bowling make it hard for me to go to the bowling alley whenever I want because of the limited amount of contact/lane space,” Spencer said.

Although this year has been especially challenging for student athletes, Parola said he hopes there will still be a chance to have a resemblance of a traditional year as the school year progresses.

“Our goal is to give everybody an opportunity to experience a resemblance of their season that is their sport,” he said. “We have 31 IHSA opportunities that we give our student athletes, and our goal is to give them an opportunity that may not be the traditional season, but we are also talking about homecoming being in early April so that students still get to experience this school year from the powder puff game to the parade so that students get to have the fulfillment of what homecoming has been to what it is now.”