FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's high school athletic board voted Friday to begin practices for football and other fall sports Aug. 24 and games less than two weeks later, pushing aside the advice of its medical experts who said competition should not resume for at least six weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Florida High School Athletic Association board voted 11-5 to begin practices this month. It's a plan endorsed by its executive director, George Tomyn, although it could mean the state's largest counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — plus some others with major outbreaks might choose to delay their seasons and forgo participation in the statewide playoffs.
Football games and other competitions could start Sept. 4, but the 67 countywide school districts plus private schools will have until Sept. 18 to resume if they want to participate in the state playoffs. If a district decides to delay its season and not participate in the playoffs, its teams will be allowed to extend their regular seasons. Other fall sports affected are swimming and diving, cross country, golf, bowling and girl’s volleyball.
Carlos Ochoa, a Miami-Dade board member who introduced the adopted measure, said it gives districts and schools the most flexibility. Gov. Ron DeSantis has been calling for schools to reopen, including the resumption of sports.
“Not everyone’s going to be the same with this situation, because of what’s in front of us," Ochoa said at the board's Gainesville meeting. “The reality is that the unknown has been there, it’s here today and we don’t know how long it will continue to be a part of us.”
The association's vote pushed aside the recommendation of its medical advisory board, which called for not resuming sports until Sept. 28 at the earliest. No county meets all the criteria the board recommended for the resumption of sports. Those include, for two weeks, having both a decrease in reported daily cases and a positivity rate on tests of below 5%.
“Until this virus is given the respect it deserves to quiet down, introducing sports adds fuel to the fire,” said Dr. Jennifer Maynard, head of the medical advisory committee.
The board's decision came shortly after Florida announced 229 new confirmed coronavirus deaths, the sixth time in two weeks it has broken the 200 barrier. That brings Florida's death total to 9,276 since March. Over the past week, Florida has averaged 175 reported coronavirus deaths per day — only Texas has a higher average, 212, but it also has 50% more residents.
The state reported more than 6,200 new confirmed cases, pushing the total over 563,000. The positivity rate for testing remains at 12.8% over the last week.
COVID-19 has become Florida’s leading cause of death, averaging more than 140 reported fatalities per day during the past month. By comparison, the state health department says the former leading causes of death, cancer and heart disease, each average about 125 fatalities per day.
Meanwhile, DeSantis led a panel discussion in Sarasota with his wife, Casey, on the affect school closures have had on child abuse and children's mental health. Most of the state's districts have reopened campuses or will by Aug. 31, although they are giving parents the option to have their children attend class online. A judge, however, said Friday he will hear next week a lawsuit filed by the state teachers union seeking to delay the reopening of campuses.
The first lady, who has made a mental health a personal priority since her husband took office, expressed concerns about a steep decline in the number of calls to the state’s abuse hotline.
She said that in March alone, calls to the hotline dropped 40% compared to a year earlier. Child abuse investigations have dropped 44% percent and she said there were similar declines in reports of sexual and physical abuse.
The implication was that cases haven’t declined, but rather they’re going unreported because teachers and other school officials, the largest reporters of abuse, aren't seeing children.
“That’s 20,000 less calls you’re seeing into the child crisis hotline,” Casey DeSantis said. “That’s 250 school buses packed full of kids one right after the other. That’s how many kids who are not getting a chance to be able to tell their stories.”
In Tallahassee, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson refused a state request to dismiss the Florida Education Association lawsuit, saying it deserves a hearing. The union wants to block the reopening of campuses and to keep instruction entirely online until it’s satisfied enough protections are in place to safeguard teachers’ health.
"They’re being asked to staff brick and mortar schools in conditions which are unsafe. We could perceive of no more direct and immediate harm,” said Ron Meyer, the union's lawyer.
Farrington reported from Tallahassee. Associated Press reporters Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale and Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.