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Sports practices canceled as Anchorage School District nears ‘high-risk’ operating scenario under COVID-19

Jonathon Tuatua, foreground, prepares to throw a pass to Coen Niclai on the field at Service High School before the start of football practice on July 21, 2020. Both are freshmen. (Marc Lester / ADN)

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The Anchorage School District on Wednesday canceled all sports practices and activities for at least another two weeks as the municipality’s coronavirus case counts continued to rise.

Under the school district’s four-part plan, which includes low-, medium-low-, medium-high- and high-risk scenarios for school operations during the pandemic, “high-risk” means that all school will be conducted online and that all sports and activities can no longer meet in person.

“In anticipation of a shift to a High-Risk category in the coming days, the Anchorage School District will cancel all in-person contact between ASD coaches and student athletes,” district spokeswoman Lisa Miller wrote in a statement.

Fall sports practices that were scheduled to begin July 29 are now postponed until at least Aug. 5, she said.

“In keeping with the District’s process for monitoring athletics and academics, we will continue to monitor the numbers daily and make a determination every two weeks about the ongoing status of fall sports and activities,” Miller wrote.

Its football teams have been holding conditioning practices since June and were gearing up to begin full-contact drills soon, said Walter Harmon, South High School football coach.

“Everybody was transitioning to more football movement this week with the expectation that next Wednesday, we were going to be full-go into the season,” Harmon said.

But at this point, that’s all on hold, Harmon said.

Students take part in a cheer team clinic on the field at Service High School on July 21, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Teams have been operating under the district’s summer activity mitigation plan, which says that at a high-risk level, all in-person activities must cease. But protocols for fall sports practices from the Alaska School Activities Association allow coaches and players to interact in person for outdoor-only conditioning with a 10-foot distance between people.

The start of the season is essentially postponed for a week and so those guidelines don’t yet apply, said Marty Lang, a secondary director with the district who helps oversee athletics.

An ongoing “internal conversation” is taking place about whether having in-person conditioning will be safe with coronavirus cases escalating, Lang said.

The district is also drafting mitigation plans specific to all fall sports, Lang said.

“We know that participation in high school sports brings with it a lot of social-emotional benefits for students,” Lang said. “We want to preserve as much of that as we safely carry on in this current environment.”

Still, it’s not safe to hold practice right now and the district is waiting to see how case numbers change, Lang said.

Athletic programs build connections between athletes and with the community, said Tim Davis, West High School football coach.

“Any time you lose that connection, whether it’s for your safety or for whatever reason — that’s tough,” he said.

It’s not all drawbacks, though — practices have been more streamlined, athletes are taking more control over their own personal fitness and studying online playbooks, he said.

The pandemic is a “real-life learning opportunity” with highs and lows reminiscent of moments of disappointment and triumph during football games, Davis said.

Harmon said he used virtual teaching and online conditioning to keep his team working in the spring.

“Now that we’re in the period where we really should be together and working doing football movements, I’m still scratching my head a little bit on how to accomplish that safely,” he said.

The district is using a 14-day average of daily new cases in the municipality to gauge its risk level. There are now 29 new cases of COVID-19 per day on average in Anchorage, according to state data. Anything over 29 means the municipality will be in the high-risk category, according to the district’s plan.

Anchorage School District officials had previously announced a tentative plan to begin holding in-person classes in small groups two days a week in August, and soon afterward switch to in-person classes five days a week in September.

But if case counts persist at this rate or continue to increase, the district won’t start with in-person classes, superintendent Deena Bishop said Tuesday.

The announcement from the school district comes as Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz also announced new restrictions on indoor gatherings and capacity restrictions for businesses.

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