Coronavirus concerns meant the school year in Pittsburgh was beginning entirely remote, so the superintendent reasoned that a close contact sport like football, with shoulder-to-shoulder huddles and colliding bodies, could not be safe either. He announced that sports would be postponed until 2021.

Then came protests from students, coaches and parents, pleading that football was important to players’ lives and mental health, and that elite athletes might just transfer to other districts.

“With football, it’s close contact — they’re hitting each other, they’re tackling each other, they’re sweating on each other — there’s a risk, obviously,” allowed Don Schmidt, the longtime head football coach at Brashear High, one of Pittsburgh’s largest schools. But he said football was important for kids who need direction in their lives. “The kids need this. This has kept our kids positive.”

Ultimately, the school board decided that, yes, sports would go on.

“It’s a difficult decision, and I hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me,” said Terry Kennedy, a member of the school board.

To many, postponing sports seems logical, especially if schools are closed. But increasingly, schools have allowed the games to proceed, often following protests and demonstrations from students, parents and coaches.

“There was a strong opinion sort of early in the situation that if it wasn’t appropriate to bring kids back to the school building and classrooms, then it should not be appropriate to bring them back to the playing fields. And now we’re actually seeing a shift in that opinion,” said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

'What do we want? Sports!'

In Akron, Ohio, board members had voted multiple times to cancel fall sports, but reversed course after facing protests, including an August demonstration in front of the school district’s building where parents and athletes chanted: “What do we want? Sports!”

When the schools in Hammond, Ind., opted for fully remote learning, they also postponed contact sports. But the school board reversed the decision after hearing emotional pleas from students who wanted to play.

And in Wichita, where sports had been postponed over the summer, mounting pressure from the community forced the school district to announce in September that it would allow sports to be played this fall. What’s more, if the district opens buildings for learning, students may only participate in sports if they agree to continue learning remotely, in a bid to limit exposures.

Nationally, there’s been considerable debate over whether colleges should play football, with President Trump and others pressuring schools to play. The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences initially said they would cancel but then reversed course. In the weeks since the season began, at least two dozen games involving major college teams have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus.

This larger debate may have obscured a parallel conversation over high school football that hits closer to home for many families. The argument is particularly sharp in places where classes have been forced online, with some maintaining that it makes little sense to allow in-person sports but not learning.

Not every protest has been successful. In Richmond last month, about 50 people marched to protest the decision to postpone all high school sports in Virginia, but the decision stood.

In Memphis, criticism has rained down on Joris Ray, the superintendent of the Shelby County Schools, for canceling fall football. Dozens of students protested outside his office, parents have attacked him on Twitter and even some coaches have spoken out. But Ray says sports present too much of a risk.

“As long as we are learning virtually, we will remain postponed,” Ray said in an interview. “We will not prioritize athletics over academic achievement.”

Criticism goes the other way too. In Abington, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, sports are in person and classes are online. That frustrates Stephanie Beck, even though she loves football and even though her husband coaches high school football in a neighboring district. During school days, she supervises 14 students, including four of her own plus children whose parents need to work.

“I just find it very frustrating they can find the reasons of emotional and social well-being for sports but not for other clubs or schooling,” she said. “And no, you can’t have a virtual football team, but a virtual classroom isn’t working either.”

A piece of normalcy

For affected high school athletes, losing the fall season is painful. Those hoping for college scholarships lose a critical window to impress recruiters. Outdoor exercise is important, particularly at a time when people have been confined to their homes for long stretches. Sports also can represent one piece of normalcy when the pandemic is robbing so much else.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have canceled their high school fall sports seasons entirely, according to the website MaxPreps, which tracks high school sports. But in the rest of the country, it’s up to individual school districts to set policy.

Given the disparity, scores of players and their families have migrated to other states where football is happening this fall. Prospects from California, Kansas, Colorado and Illinois transferred to schools in Iowa, where sports were on after Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) pushed schools to at least partially open academics.

In Sparta Township Public Schools in northern New Jersey, school buildings have been closed for the vast majority of students, but sports were allowed to go on.

Superintendent Patrick McQueeney said he determined it would be safe as long as teams followed state guidelines including symptom tracking, mask-wearing and, for a time over the summer, confining exposure to smaller pods of athletes. Once games began, though, the podding ended.

“We felt confident in protocols we had,” he said. He said there was some “chatter” over Facebook about why the district was emphasizing athletics over academics but no significant pushback.

Nonetheless, in mid-September, the district suspended all sports for two weeks after six coronavirus cases were reported, including students on the football and girls’ soccer teams. McQueeney said he believed the virus was contracted when students socialized on their own without recommended distancing.

In a letter to parents, he described the suspension as a protective measure. “We are hoping to avoid a potential scenario that could result in a future cancellation of the fall season,” he wrote.

Turnover in Pittsburgh

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said in early August that schools opting for a remote-only model should not play sports in the fall. “What happens in schools should be consistent with what happens on the playing fields,” he said. “If the school is going completely virtual, it seems hard to justify having in-person contact sports being played in the fall.”

The Pittsburgh schools initially said they would follow the recommendation. Then came the protests.

“If you’re in the city not playing sports, there’s so many things you can get into,” said sophomore Ta’Mere Robinson, one of Brashear’s most coveted college prospects. He organized players around the city to protest the decision over social media.

Most of the city’s school board was hesitant, but members changed their minds after hearing from coaches and students.

Brashear High School is trying to practice safely, with mixed results. School buses are not running, so players must car pool, and many arrive late for practice. The locker room is off limits, so they get changed in the parking lot. Four players at a time are allowed to enter a hallway inside the building to grab equipment.

Athletes have their temperatures checked each day and are required to wear masks when they’re not on the field. After practice, the pads and helmets are sprayed with disinfectant.

For his part, Robinson said he does not worry about getting infected.

“I feel like I could get it anywhere, so having contact is not a problem. I could seriously walk around one day and I could just get the coronavirus,” he said.

Plans also changed in the Iowa City Community School District. School and sports were both on; then in early September, students returned to the University of Iowa and coronavirus cases surged. The school board called an emergency Zoom meeting and voted unanimously to move school fully online, with no in-person sports.

Players from across the city responded with a “Let Us Play” demonstration at the school district building to protest the decision.

Jeff Gordon, head football coach at Iowa City Liberty High School, argued that it was almost safer to play with students out of school. “Kids weren’t in school, so their bubble was much smaller, so we thought that makes it good that the kids are playing football.” Still, he allowed: “There’s not a lot of social distancing in football.”

Three weeks later, the district opened for some in-person school and sports were allowed to resume for all students. Gordon said he has a handful of students in each class who are learning from home but still playing.

“It’s kind of like riding a motorcycle — there’s not a whole lot of logical reasons to ride a motorcycle, but at the same time it makes you feel alive and it gives you purpose and people love it,” he said. “It’s hard after sitting around for six months not to go and play football.”