There will be football and other high school sports this fall, but the state’s larger schools will have to wait.
That’s the message sent out across the state Tuesday by the University Interscholastic League, the state’s governing body for athletics and other extracurricular activities for public schools.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to ravage the state, UIL officials released a much-anticipated plan on Tuesday that offers a guideline to begin the fall sports season.
There are two separate sets of rules for schools, depending on the size of the schools. Larger schools that compete in classes 5A and 6A will have the start of the season delayed approximately a month, while smaller schools in classes 1A-4A will begin athletic activities as scheduled early next month.
The plan also pushes back state championship football games in classes 5A and 6A to January, which gives every school in those classifications a chance to participate in a full season.
"Our goal in releasing this plan is to provide a path forward for Texas students and schools," UIL Executive Director Charles Breithaupt said 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."
UIL officials also stressed that the plan "allows for local flexibility and encourages districts to plan for possible interruptions in order to complete district seasons," according to a press release issued Tuesday morning.
Athletic programs in classes 5A and 6A will be able to begin strength and conditioning workouts Sept. 7, with a goal of beginning all athletic seasons by the end of September.
Football teams in 5A and 6A will be allowed to practice beginning Sept. 7 and can compete in their first football game beginning Sept. 24. They must complete district play by Dec. 5, and state-championship games in 5A and 6A will take place in January at a date not yet determined.
However, football teams in Travis County won’t be able to play their first game until the first week of October, per UIL guidelines. Football teams that are not allowed to participate in strength and conditioning programs until after Aug. 24 won’t be able to participate in a scrimmage until Sept. 24 and a game until Oct. 1. Those dates will apply to all schools in Travis County, which issued a public health notification last week prohibiting sports and other extracurricular activities for schools until in-class instruction resumes Sept. 7 at the earliest.
In an interview with Austin radio station 104.9 FM Tuesday morning, Breithaupt said the UIL does not yet have a location for state championship football games for classes 5A and 6A, but he anticipates them taking place the week of Jan. 11-16.
Classes 1A through 4A will play their title games at AT&T Stadium in December as scheduled.
Volleyball teams in classes 5A and 6A can begin practice Sept. 7 and matches Sept. 14, while cross country and team tennis in classes 5A and 6A can begin competition Sept. 7. District competition for volleyball must be completed by Nov. 17 with the state tournament scheduled for Dec. 11-12.
In classes 1A-4A, volleyball and football practices can begin as scheduled on Aug. 3 with games beginning Aug. 10 for volleyball and Aug. 27 for football. Playoffs will begin and end on the current schedule. The UIL’s announcement will not supersede local rulings, so schools such as Class 4A’s LBJ must still comply with Austin Public Health rules that prohibit athletic workouts until Sept. 7.
Although coaches and administrators admit that the next two months will require myriad logistical decisions, they expressed satisfaction with the UIL’s decision.
"We have a lot of work for us in the next six or eight weeks, logistically, but now we have direction," Pflugerville athletic director Todd Raymond said. "There’s still a 1,000 questions for us to answer, but the UIL has pointed us in the right direction and given us some framework."
All four of the Pflugerville schools compete in Class 5A, and all four are located within Travis County. Other school districts have campuses spread across classifications as well as county lines, making uniform decisions for a district more complicated.
All but two of the Austin schools compete in classes 5A or 6A. However, LBJ moved to Class 4A in last February’s biennial realignment and won’t be able to play its first football game until Oct. 1.
The other schools in LBJ’s District 13-4A DI — which include Lampasas, Canyon Lake, Burnet, Taylor and Fredericksburg — have no restrictions on the start of their season.
"At the end of the day, we knew that there would be a sacrifice," LBJ head coach Jahmal Fenner said. "It’s not a perfect scenario, but we’ll get to play all our district games and have playoffs. That’s what’s most important."
Fenner said his team may have a disadvantage when district play begins Oct. 9 against Canyon Lake, and he hopes to schedule a nondistrict game in what was originally a bye week on the first weekend of October.
"My initial concern is that we won't have as much time to practice and play as the other schools," he said. "They’ll have live reps and quality game experience."
Georgetown football coach Chuck Griffin had a simple reaction to the UIL’s decision.
"Let’s go," he said. "We have a season now and a target to work toward. I think everyone from the coaches to the kids are excited."
Volleyball coaches also were pleased with the UIL announcement, although the revised schedule prohibits preseason tournaments in order to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Volleyball teams will have more leeway from the UIL when it comes to scheduling nondistrict games, creating the possibility for multiple games on weekends.
"It’s a plan, and I’m glad we have a plan," said volleyball coach Jacob Thompson of Rouse, whose perennial Class 5A powerhouse often uses preseason tournament matches against Class 6A squads to prep for the playoffs. "Tournaments have been very beneficial for us in the past, so we will have to get creative in how we get ready (for the playoffs).
"We had a curveball thrown at us on March 13 (when the coronavirus halted the spring sports season), so we may as well get one more."
The UIL’s announcement follows a wave of decisions by school districts across the state to delay the start of the school year. Multiple school districts in the Austin area have already postponed the start of school until September, including Austin, Round Rock, Hays, Bastrop, Eanes and Lake Travis.
In its press release, the UIL said "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."
The UIL also has several requirements in response to the pandemic. Stadiums will be limited to 50% capacity, and the UIL will also require schools to develop a plan for mitigating risk of spreading the coronavirus during UIL-sanctioned activities. Schools should follow all state requirements when considering UIL activities, according to UIL officials. In the press release, the UIL recommended that "each school identify a staff member or group of staff members to serve as compliance officer(s) to oversee effective use of these protocols. Schools must follow all requirements of state authorities."
The UIL also requires that schools include UIL activities for the upcoming school year when it comes to determining guidelines to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Schools must post these plans on the homepage of the school website or other easily accessible area of the school website, per the UIL announcement.