The question everyone is asking: Will there be high school football this fall?

By Craig Sager II

Fulton County and Cobb County—two of the largest metro Atlanta counties—have joined a growing list that includes Clayton County, DeKalb County, Atlanta Public Schools and Decatur City Schools as the most recent metro districts to announce their plan to start the fall semester with 100 percent virtual learning.

These decisions will undoubtedly add even more obstacles to the prospect of playing athletics this fall. The confusion as to what lies ahead is understandable. As recent as yesterday, the GHSA released guidelines that would allow football programs to begin issuing students football helmets as soon as Monday, July 20. How a football season would be possible during a virtual school year remains to be seen, but the time is ticking and it looks like answers will come sooner than later.

Cobb County Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale relayed the news on Tuesday morning —   prompting the Superintendent of the Marietta City School system, which resides within the county, to send out a staff email that indicated that he would be recommending a virtual start to the school year in a special-called board meeting Friday morning.

“This decision has been weighing on me for a while. I know we need to get back to face-to-face instruction,” Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said in a statement posted to Twitter. “That is why we tried to offer parents two options – in-person and virtual – to start the school year. Ultimately, public health guidance does not make that possible.”

Fulton County’s news broke Thursday morning as Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney announced the district’s move to a virtual start to the school year.

“I have been very clear all along that the reopening was predicated on the level of community spread,” Looney said. “Unfortunately, that data continues to move in the wrong direction.”

Looney said that this was a long-term decision and did not point to how long the county will be operating on a virtual basis.

The question is when will these superintendents decide whether athletics will be allowed while the students are learning digitally?

For now, no one is saying. When asked if athletics was still a possibility this Fall, Fulton County athletics director Dr. Steven Craft said, “I’m sorry but I can’t comment at this time while we are working on the current situation.’’

Gwinnett County is the largest district in the state and after it delayed its start to the school year a week, it is now being reported that it may rescind its previous stance and join the other major metro districts by adopting a 100 percent virtual learning to start the semester. Longtime superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who rules over a county that educates one out of every 10 students in the state, has been working with his board all day to come to a unanimous decision.

Meanwhile, Forsyth County plans on opening the year with students on campus, requiring masks and social distancing. The county has a virtual academy and in past years has had students that live in Forsyth take classes online while also participating in athletics.

On the college level things are not looking good with cancellations swelling up across the national landscape. Earlier this week, NCAA President Mark Emmert talked about the concerning data in regards to COVID-19 and the uphill battle that will be needed to successfully start a season.

“When we made the extremely difficult decision to cancel last spring’s championships it was because there was simply no way to conduct them safely,” said Emmert. “This document lays out the advice of health care professionals as to how to resume college sports if we can achieve an environment where COVID-19 rates are manageable. Today, sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

How things will play out with Georgia high school athletics will be seen in the upcoming days. In Louisiana, for example, the state has already announced that it will not be able to have football until the state reaches Phase 4 of its reopening strategy—it is currently in Phase 2. Virginia and New Mexico have already said it will not play football this season and in Texas where the virus has hit hard lately, the Dallas school superintendent said, “Football is a true contact sport. I don’t see how we can pull that off. There has been some discussion of moving it to the spring but we will have to wait and see. I seriously doubt that we can pull that off.’’

The big news breaking out of Cobb County and Fulton County this week has shifted the focus to the two district’s athletic futures for the fall. Both athletics directors have not made direct statements in regards to fall sports being able to proceed in the unprecedented virtual starts that awaits the fall semester. Craft, however, did announce on Thursday that the board was meeting next week to discuss the plan for fall sports moving forward.

“I know that everyone has questions and concerns surrounding FCS Athletics,” said Craft via Twitter Thursday afternoon. “Please be patient as we work though the current situation. The safety of our student athletes and staff will always remain our focus. FCS will update everyone at the board meeting on July 23.”

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