FARGO — Those involved with high school athletics have been in wait-and-see mode since the pandemic brought sports to a screeching halt in mid-March.

The situation surrounding sports remains fluid, but North Dakota High School Activities Association executive director Matt Fetsch provided an update on where things stand as winter sports draw closer, volleyball ramps up for playoffs and football teams begin postseason play.

Seven months after an abrupt end to the basketball season, winter sports will get their return. Fetsch reaffirmed that winter sports will go on as scheduled, if the pandemic doesn’t throw a wrench into the seasons.

There’s been no discussion at the Board of Directors level on anything different at this point, Fetsch said. As of now, practices and competitions will start on time. Still, Fetsch realizes how much can change by then.

“We’re learning a ton as we go. You talk winter sports, it’s just a whole new layer, a whole new set of sports,” Fetsch said. “Everything is so different that we’ll continue to learn a lot as we go through the winter, too, I’m sure.”

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Fargo South-Shanley players celebrate Carson Dean's goal against Minot on Thursday, Feb. 27, during the North Dakota state boys hockey tournament at Scheels Arena.  David Samson / The Forum
Fargo South-Shanley players celebrate Carson Dean's goal against Minot on Thursday, Feb. 27, during the North Dakota state boys hockey tournament at Scheels Arena. David Samson / The Forum

Sixteen counties, including several of the state’s most populous, were moved up to the “high” risk designation last week by Gov. Doug Burgum. Following the jump in risk level, Fargo Public Schools and West Fargo Public Schools, among other districts in the orange-coded designation, announced they wouldn’t be allowing fans to attend athletic events.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily changed the discussions at all. It’s been such a fluid situation from the start last March,” Fetsch said on where the state is at right now with the COVID-19 outbreak compared to July. “I think everyone's just learning so much as they go along, as well.

"For example, in summer and early fall, the thought nationwide was ‘How are we ever going to be able to have a football season with COVID-19 and the high-risk of exposure in football?’ And in reality, what we’ve learned is, if you’ve followed the NFL or the FBS level, they at this point haven’t experienced any team-to-team spread.”

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study on the COVID-19 transmission in high school sports, which was released Thursday, Oct. 22, concluded that participation in sports was not associated with an increased risk of infection among high school student-athletes.

The UW School of Medicine and Public Health surveyed 207 schools that gave fall sports the go ahead, representing more than 30,000 athletes, over 16,000 practices and more than 4,000 games in September.

Of the 30,074 student-athletes, there were 271 cases of COVID-19 reported during that period, compared with 2,318 of 14-17 year olds in Wisconsin. Schools were asked to report the source of the transmission of any positive cases, if known. Of the 209 cases among players with a known source, only one was attributed to participation in sports, according to the study.

Winter sports will bring a different set of obstacles because they’re played in indoor settings, which hold a greater risk of the virus spreading compared to outdoor activities.

In the rapidly changing landscape, Fetsch anticipates he’ll make adjustments.

Kindred's Abby Duchsherer connects for a basket over Central Cass' Ema Lee and Jaylin Cotton during the North Dakota Class B Region 1 girls basketball tournament semifinals on Tuesday, Feb. 19, in Wahpeton.
David Samson / The Forum
Kindred's Abby Duchsherer connects for a basket over Central Cass' Ema Lee and Jaylin Cotton during the North Dakota Class B Region 1 girls basketball tournament semifinals on Tuesday, Feb. 19, in Wahpeton. David Samson / The ForumDavid Samson / The Forum

Just like the fall, it’ll be up to each individual school district to develop its own health guidelines and protocols based on the NDHSAA recommendations and in conjunction with state and local health officials.

“Overall, I think we're pretty happy with where we’re at considering all the unknowns back in July when the board made the decision to move ahead with fall activities on time,” Fetsch said.

But for now, the NDHSAA’s focus is concluding fall activities.

With football playoffs underway and the volleyball postseason around the corner, the NDHSAA released protocol for playoff events. The protocols were established in conjunction with the North Dakota Department of Health, and will provide a small sense of familiarity to the playoffs.

Two spectators per participant will be permitted at NDHSAA postseason events hosted by member schools, including schools that had previously not allowed fans. Because playoffs are NDHSAA events, the attendance cap will be in place at the member schools that didn’t allow fans to attend during the regular season.

Each site’s restrictions will depend on the ND Smart Restart risk level of the county of the member school hosting the postseason event, according to the protocol.

Two tickets will be allotted per participant at postseason events held in counties under green, yellow and orange designations. Masks are required for all fans in all risk levels except blue, which requires mask-wearing when social distancing can’t be maintained.

The blue “new normal” level has no attendance limitations.

At member schools in green-coded or “low” risk counties, if player ticket distribution does not exceed 200, unsold tickets may be sold by the host school.

In yellow-coded or “moderate” risk counties, if player ticket distribution does not exceed 100, unsold tickets may be sold by the host school.

At events in orange-coded counties that are designated as “high” risk, tickets won’t be available to the general public.

Protocols for events in red or “critical” counties are to be determined.

With the nature of this season, if a team is forced to quarantine in the midst of a postseason, there’s a procedure in place on how it’ll be dealt with, which doesn’t include halting play.