The University Interscholastic League released an updated calendar and COVID-19 guidelines for the upcoming fall season, which featured separate calendars for the bigger schools in the more highly-populated areas of Texas and the smaller schools in the less dense and rural areas.
For Classes 4A and lower, very little has changed on the calendar in terms of dates. For Classes 5A and 6A, there will be a month delay, pushing practice start dates to September.
Splendora is the only Class 4A school in Montgomery County and they will start practice on time come Aug. 3 with football and volleyball. The season calendar remains the same with the first football game scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 27 and the first volleyball matches to commence on Aug. 10. Splendora will have to adjust its non-district schedules to include only Class 4A teams or smaller.
If everything stays on track with football, the season would conclude with the previously scheduled state championships dates of Dec. 16-19. Volleyball would conclude with the state tournament Nov. 18-21.
Splendora, which advanced to the regional semifinal last fall, will be the lone team playing volleyball in the county for a little over a month.
“We are pumped,” Splendora volleyball coach DaVette McCall said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’re so excited. We’re ready to hit the ground running. We’ll fill the holes in our schedule and we’re just so excited to start on August 3.”
McCall said the rules regarding 5A and 6A, paired with tournament play being barred, wiped out most of the Ladycats’ non-district schedule. Last season, Splendora played 42 regular season matches. Even after adding matches as far away as Bellville (83 miles one way) and La Grange (125 miles), McCall expects that number to be closer to 25 in 2020.
Even though Tuesday had its fair share of scheduling snafus, the overarching feeling was a happy one.
“I’m so relieved,” McCall said. “It’s all about (the kids), so I’m definitely excited for them. They’ve done a great job all summer not focusing on the news. They just came in here and got to work and have kind of just been going with the flow, so that’s been really nice.”
Splendora football faced similar scheduling issues. As of Tuesday, head football coach and athletic director Marcus Schulz had found one regular season replacement in Tyler Chapel Hill, a program coached by Schulz’s friend and former Crosby coach Jeff Riordan. The location of the new Week 1 in game has not yet been determined.
“Among the smaller schools, they may not have played 5A schools, so their schedules are perfectly fine,” Schulz said. “We’ve been on the phone trying to find games.”
Class 4A and below will also get going on time with cross country and team tennis, which will follow the original schedule. However, the cross country state meet will take place along with Class 6A and Class 5A on Dec. 5, nearly a month delay from the originally-scheduled date. Team tennis state meet for all classes will be Nov. 11-12.
Class 5A and 6A, which features the high schools of Conroe ISD, Montgomery ISD, Willis ISD, Magnolia ISD and New Caney ISD, start practice on Sept. 7 for football and volleyball (cross country and team tennis can practice year-round). Football’s regular season can begin the weekend of Sept. 24 while volleyball can start games on Sept. 14. First competitions for cross country and team tennis can take place Sept. 7.
In the meantime, schools can continue to hold strength and conditioning and sport specific instruction. Beginning August 3, the time for sport specific activities will increase from sixty minutes per day to two hours per day.
If the school year begins prior to September 7, students may continue to engage in sport specific instruction for two hours per day. The time in the athletic period counts as part of that two hour total.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect,” Conroe campus athletic coordinator and head football coach Cedric Hardeman said in a phone interview. “You hear different rumors about it being cut short or flipped — just the fact that we got some news is a breath of fresh air. Us, as coaches, we like to plan and be prepared. Living in the world of not knowing what’s going on is against our norm. This at least gives us some guidelines that still aren’t concrete — because everything is fluid considering everything going on — but it gives us something to plan and move forward with.”
The state championship for volleyball would take place Dec. 11-12, while football will take place at a to-be-determined time in January. Because of the pushed back district certification date for football, the regular season will remain 11 weeks long.
When the season begins, volleyball will be allowed three matches (or dual matches) in a calendar week. Only one match is allowed during the school week while other matches can be played Friday and Saturday.
“Our goal in releasing this plan is to provide a path forward for Texas students and schools,” said UIL Executive Director Dr. Charles Breithaupt in a press release. “While understanding situations change and there will likely be interruptions that will require flexibility and patience, we are hopeful this plan allows students to participate in the education-based activities they love in a way that prioritizes safety and mitigates risk of COVID-19 spread.”
The press release also stated, “With the understanding that not all schools will be able to start at the same time, this plan allows for schools to make playing decisions at the local level, and the UIL will work directly with schools that have scheduling issues not addressed in this plan to allow them flexibility to complete as many contests as possible.”
There was a slight modification to boys and girls basketball season calendar. The district certification dates were changed to Feb. 9 for girls and Feb. 16 for boys. Teams will not be able to play in tournaments or showcases, including the regional tournament.
In addition to the larger news of the date changes for Class 5A and 6A schools, the UIL also updated and added to its COVID-19 Risk Mitigation Guidelines.
The guidance, which will go into effect Aug. 1, features guidelines for hosts, visitors, fans and media, among others. According to the document, changes in the pandemic could lead to changes to the guidance.
“Guidelines may evolve, like the guidelines that have evolved over the summer in strength and conditioning camps,” Hardeman said. “I can foresee this being ongoing. Like any plan, it sounds good on paper and once you implement it, that’s when you come up with questions and concerns, things like that. I’m confident the UIL, like they’ve always done, will listen and make any added adjustments they need to make sure our kids are safe.”
Game, contest and event management was given its own section of guidelines.
Among the guidelines are screening of workers including staff and officials, distanced spectator areas, frequent disinfecting of used areas, and altered pregame and postgame gestures, ‘to help reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19.’
Student groups such as cheerleaders, drill teams and marching bands will be allowed at events and schools are asked to consider, ‘limiting the number of participants to those essential to the performance.’
“It’s going to take a total team effort,” Schulz said on enforcing the new guidelines. “My staff, I think we’ve done a tremendous job during strength and conditioning with the rules and regulations — making sure our kids are safe and our facilities are clean. Some of the capacity rules in place are some things I’ll have to look at as an athletic director and we as a district will have to try to figure out to accommodate visiting teams and their fans in our facilities.”
Schools are asked to limit spectators at events, ‘within a 50 percent maximum occupancy.’ Spectators, and everyone in attendance, will be required to wear face coverings, per Governor Greg Abbott’s GA-29 order. Groups, defined as, ‘no more than 10 people including the members of the household and those persons who traveled together to the facility,’ will be required to socially distance in the stands, and schools are asked to consider allowing seating in every other row.
“Everybody is going to have understand what the expectations are,” Hardeman said. “Each individual entity, whatever they’re responsible for — the seating, cleaning the locker rooms — everybody is going to have a hand in following the guidelines. At the end of the day, it’s for the safety of the kids. Everything we do as administrators, coaches, teachers, it’s for the kids. This is something added to our plate that we’re asked to do, but I don’t see it being a problem.”
Press boxes are also encouraged to be socially distanced and schools are asked to limit access to working media to ensure protocols are followed. Postgame interviews will require face coverings and social distancing as well.
Concessions will also be allowed at events, with limitations explained in the latest guidelines.
Delay of games
Last week, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools as well as the Southwest Preparatory Conference announced similar decisions to delay the beginning of the fall sports season.
TAPPS, which includes Montgomery County schools The Woodlands Christian Academy, Legacy Prep, Covenant Christian, Lifestyle Christian and Calvary Baptist, announced it would push back the beginning of fall practices to Sept. 8 with a goal to begin competition in volleyball and individual sports — including cross country, team tennis, golf and swimming — on Sept. 21.
The SPC, which includes The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, will wait a month as well.
The UIL, TAPPS and SPC all had to cancel its spring sports seasons in April after pausing them in March. The decision cost the UIL its boys basketball state tournament in San Antonio as well as the remainder of the soccer, baseball, softball, tennis, track and field and golf seasons.
The UIL allowed for strength and conditioning camps to open on June 8, allowing coaches to bring back their athletes to campus for the first time since March. After a couple weeks of activity, some school districts paused strength and conditioning camps out of caution as cases of coronavirus rose in the state in mid-June into July.