Hargis: Number of COVID-19 cancellations this football season cause for concern

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / McCallie's Cooper Rumfelt (77) and Kenzy Paul (1) walk alongside officials to midfield for the pregame coin toss on Aug. 27 in Calhoun, Ga. McCallie, the back-to-back reigning TSSAA Division II-AAA state champion, is 3-0 this season, but some Chattanooga-area schools have only played once in the first month due to COVID-19 protocol.

As difficult as it might seem to believe, we are closing in on the halfway point of high school football's regular season. Four weeks after kickoff, though, there are seven Chattanooga-area TSSAA teams - and many others around Tennessee - that have played just one game.

The recurring theme the past two weeks was the number of games either postponed or canceled outright for reasons related to COVID-19 as the pandemic lingers. Those numbers - 29 games canceled statewide in week two, followed by 36 cancellations last week - reflected the rising spike in cases across the state.

This time last week, the numbers appeared to be trending in a direction reminiscent of last December, when Hamilton County's public schools shut down winter sports (basketball and wrestling) for three weeks to combat a spike in active cases.

With one of the nation's largest per-capita spikes in active cases, Marion County Schools announced on Sept. 1 that its entire district would close starting the following day and hold neither in-person nor virtual instruction until a planned return to classrooms Sept. 13. That meant sports and other extracurricular activities are also canceled until students begin classes again.

Along with media and school administrators, TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress has been among those keeping a concerned eye on the numbers.

(READ MORE: This week's Chattanooga-area high school football previews)

"Absolutely we've been concerned," Childress said earlier this week. "But we're not at the point where we feel like we need to do anything differently or stop the season. A lot of the cancellations are coming from superintendents who are shutting down schools to keep the virus from spreading inside the buildings. Give them credit for knowing more and doing more than we did last year.

"Last year the virus was affecting more adults, but now there are more young people and teenagers who have had to deal with it. Kids go to school all day, confined in classrooms, cafeterias and hallways, so how could we tell them that they cannot participate in athletics? Especially knowing how important being involved in those activities are for the mental and emotional health of those kids. According to the medical experts we've spoken with, there is no proof that the virus is spread during athletic competition."

Childress added the overall number of games affected by the coronavirus is very similar to this time last year, which has only solidified the state's prep sports governing body's stance that this football season will not be interrupted.

As Tennessee's seven-day average of COVID-19 cases has finally begun to show a slight decrease this week, the state's number of football games affected has also experienced a dramatic drop with only nine games originally scheduled for Friday called off.

If the number of active cases continue to trend downward, expect the schedule to finally settle into a more normal routine for the second half of the season.

"We still feel comfortable that the guidance we've received from medical experts is where we need to be," Childress said. "I know everyone is monitoring the number of games we've had canceled, but it should also be pointed out that we still have around 140 games that are getting played each week.

"We're not operating any differently this year than we did last year. Right now we consult with the same medical personnel that we did all throughout the last year to get advice on how to move forward.

"I want to assure everyone that we have never taken this lightly. We're not going to take it lightly, and we will do what needs to be done to make sure our student-athletes are safe. We have relied on science and advice from a team of medical experts, and we will finish this season by continuing to rely on those people."

photo Times Free Press sports editor Stephen Hargis

Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected] or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.