We are nearing the halfway point of the most challenging school year in history. While each area of the country has had different approaches to conducting high school sports and performing arts during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many opportunities for the 12 million participants in these programs to engage, connect or participate.

Since the national shutdown in mid-March, leaders of the 51 state high school associations that are members of the NFHS have worked tirelessly with government, education and health leaders in their respective states to orchestrate a safe return of sports and other activities. The experience of playing on a high school team may be one of the only positive aspects of many students’ lives, and the high school coach or director of a speech or music group may be the only positive role model they have.  

Unfortunately, the pause button is still in place in some areas of the country. Government, education and health leaders in some states have deemed the risk too high to return to high school sports and activities, and certainly minimizing health risks to students, coaches, officials and others has to be the No. 1 consideration in conducting these activity programs.

In these situations, state associations are working with leaders on a safe return date, so very soon we believe high school sports and activities will be happening across all 50 states.

As our Fall Sports Championships Guide indicates, 35 states conducted football postseasons this fall. Currently, 22 states have concluded their seasons, including 20 that finished with traditional state championships. Postseason football play continued in 10 other states, with the concluding Dec. 19.

The last state football championship is planned for Jan. 14-16 with the large-class finals of the Texas University Interscholastic League.

It is anticipated that 29 of the 35 states that played football this fall will finish with traditional state championships, while the other six had other culminating events to conclude the regular season.   

Eleven of the remaining 16 states have established dates for a football season in early 2021, with four states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island) yet to determine dates. Vermont held 7-on-7 football this fall and is not expected to conduct a traditional 11-player season.

In addition to football, 35 states were able to offer volleyball programs this fall, and an even larger percentage of states conducted soccer and cross country in their normal timeframes.

Certainly, there were bumps along the way. In addition to the normal stressors of social distancing, masks and enhanced hygiene precautions, individuals and teams were not able to compete at times due to positive COVID-19 cases and subsequent quarantines. We believe students have more often contracted the virus in other settings and brought it into practices or games; however, the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee is involved in gathering national data about the risk of COVID-19 spread from direct contact in sports competition this fall.

Most of the reports about percentages of cancelled games are anecdotal at this point, but the Kentucky High School Athletic Association reported that 231 of 967 (23.8%) regular-season football games in its state were cancelled for COVID-19 related reasons; however, the KHSAA has persevered and will conduct its state championships this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, 22 states have played regular-season basketball contests so far, with two additional states scheduled to start play later this month, as the Winter Sports Seasons Guide indicates. Eighteen other states are scheduled to begin their seasons after Jan. 1, with start dates ranging from Jan. 2 to March 12. Nine states have yet to announce start dates for basketball — Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington.

Not unlike football season, schools in many states have had to postpone or cancel basketball games because of positive COVID-19 cases. Those situations are being handled at the local school district level, and it is not expected to affect the overall plans of state associations to offer winter sports where possible.      

In an effort to diminish the spread of the virus in and around the playing court, at least 15 states have mandated masks in competition, with another nine requiring masks except for actual competition.

School and state association leaders are going to extraordinary lengths – where state government, education and health guidelines allow – to provide opportunities for students to participate in high school sports and the performing arts activities of speech and debate, music and theatre.

We understand and support that health concerns related to COVID-19 must come first, but every opportunity possible for high school students to engage in sports and performing arts should remain on the table.

Niehoff is the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations.