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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Howard boys' basketball coach James Talley talks to his players during a timeout last Saturday night at Brainerd. Talley's Hustlin' Tigers went on to win the District 6-AA rivalry game 71-69, but along with the rest of Hamilton County Schools' basketball and wrestling teams, the Howard boys' season will be suspended starting Monday due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases locally. No competitions or practices can be held through Jan. 3.

Just three weeks after the high school basketball and wrestling seasons began in Tennessee, concerns about the rising number of COVID-19 cases have forced Hamilton County Schools to suspend athletics starting next week.

Hamilton County administrators received an email Thursday evening informing them to notify coaches that the winter sports seasons will be shut down beginning Monday, Dec. 14, and continuing through Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.

The county's public schools had been operating this week under Phase 2 of the system's coronavirus plan, a hybrid model that allowed students to go to class either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday with Wednesday being a cleaning day for the facilities. Students spent the other days learning virtually from home.

With the announcement Thursday that county schools will switch to Phase 1 — virtual learning each day — beginning Monday, that led to the decision to also suspend all athletics. The schedule change means Friday, Dec. 18 will be the final day of in-school learning for public school students in Hamilton County this calendar year.

The decision to suspend athletics, however, will continue for the remainder of the holiday break and includes all practices and games because county athletic facilities will be shut down during that time. All teams, as well as outside organizations, are prohibited from entering the school buildings during the suspension of play.

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Tyner boys' basketball coach E'Jay Ward speaks with his team before the start of the Region 3-AA championship game against Howard at East Ridge High School on March 5. Ward said he understands Hamilton County Schools' decision to suspend winter sports starting Monday, but he is disappointed for student-athletes and concerned about the effects shutting down practices and games could have on them.

Currently, practices will be allowed to begin again on Jan. 4, with competition allowed starting Jan. 11 to allow teams a week to practice and get into shape before returning to action.

However, Brad Jackson, athletic director for Hamilton County Schools, said those return dates are tentative and will depend on whether the suspension of winter sports is extended.

"There were several factors that went into the decision, and this will allow us to monitor the number of (coronavirus) cases to determine whether we can return to play on the planned date," said Jackson, who also serves on the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's medical advisory committee. "With the building being closed and all classes going virtual, this was a pretty quick decision as far as athletics."

The annual Times Free Press Best of Preps holiday basketball tournament at Chattanooga State has also been canceled.

"With what's going on right now and where we are with the virus numbers, I understand why they're doing this," said Tyner boys' basketball coach E'Jay Ward, whose team has played three games so far this season and had to cancel three others. "The people in charge have good intentions and are doing their best to allow the kids to have a season and also look out for the best interest of everyone.

"It just stinks for the kids, and especially the seniors. These kids have been through a lot this year, and I'm just scared of losing some of them. You worry that any one of them could just throw up their hands at some point and give up, because it's harder for kids to understand the bigger picture."

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in force in March, athletics at all levels shut down, with the TSSAA ultimately deciding to cancel the spring sports season with many teams having never taken the field. In addition, the TSSAA was unable to hold its public school state tournaments for boys' basketball and unable to complete its public school state tournaments for girls' basketball.

Since prep sports were allowed to resume in Tennessee in late July, the TSSAA has left the decision on guidelines for practices and games up to individual school systems, and the TSSAA was able to crown state champions in fall sports despite some teams being forced to forfeit because of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, Knox County Schools announced a similar plan to shut down all athletics for the remainder of December, and Rhea County will suspend all athletic events beginning Friday at midnight through Jan. 3.

Cleveland High athletic director Karen Hall announced Wednesday that the school's athletic department will be moving to the red phase of its COVID-19 protocol, which means all fans are required to have temperature checks upon entering basketball games at Raider Arena or wrestling events at Jones Center, with social distancing required in the bleachers and masks to be worn at all times.

A maximum of 500 people were to be allowed in the stands for the school's boys' basketball game against Notre Dame on Thursday night, and the same restriction will apply for the Blue Raiders' matchup with intracounty rival Bradley Central on Friday night, with tickets reserved for families of players, cheerleaders and the dance squad, and general admission tickets limited to 180 and those sales already suspended.

In addition, the Cleveland Duals wrestling tournament that was set for Saturday has been called off.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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