A sweeping pandemic of a little-known virus forced state associations across the nation into intense actions and decision-making that had no prior template. When more was quickly learned of the rapidly-moving COVID-19 Coronavirus over the past few months, state association executive teams collaborated internally on scenarios and models to provide their constituents with the opportunities of an extracurricular experience while keeping them safe in public places.
But those scenarios were hypothesized and analyzed amidst evolving directives by federal and statewide governmental leaders that were issuing mandates against public gatherings. News of the virus and its fatal capabilities spread fast and concern reached frenetic heights. The NCAA, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball suspended their seasons. High school participants had sudden ends to seasons, and for some, their prep careers.
State high school associations stepped up amid the head-shaking uncertainty and did what they do best: Serve.
But they had to learn on the fly.
“There were so many unknowns with this thing,” said Jerry Snodgrass, executive director of the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
“The speed with which the virus was spreading presented incredible challenges,” said Erich Martens, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League.
“This was met with a lot of shock,” said Jeremy Holaday, an assistant executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association. “In the early going, we’d meet as an executive staff and we were still trying to come to grips with what was happening.”
Cancellations, postponements and suspension of play in winter state tournament events became commonplace in March as state associations made decisions on behalf of their constituents and concerns for public health. Soon to follow were phrases that would become daily terminologies: distance learning, stay at home, social distancing, safe at home, working remotely, self-quarantine, mitigate and flatten the curve.
Some state governmental leaders have closed school buildings for the remainder of the academic school year in favor of continued distance learning. That decision carries with it the cancellation of spring activities in those states. Other states are taking their cues from governmental leaders who have yet to make those determinations. It is wait-and-see, as well, for many states, if any kind of model can yield spring activities, which include athletics, fine arts, and the traditions of prom, commencement exercises and senior- specific festivities. State associations are also addressing summer activities, summer eligibility and the status of fall activities and the start of a new school year.
The journeys of state associations these past months have been one of intensity, exploration, collaboration and communication as they navigate an unprecedented chapter in their histories. Financial hardships for state associations have also become a reality with lost revenue in the wake of cancelled state tournaments.
“We’ve been through so many models on the whiteboard,” Snodgrass said. “Some of them get torn up and can be used in the bottom of hamster cages. But we keep trying to do what is right for our schools and kids.”
Snodgrass and Martens said they were first alerted to the Coronavirus when it took hold in China. When a case was first reported in the United States, in Washington state, both leaders began to formulate action plans with their executive staffs.
“What made this particularly challenging was that we had no timeline or previous experience,” Martens said. “We’ve had shortterm issues like weather, but for something to be so universal and not have a solution or a timeline made it very difficult. There were unknowns we were dealing with.”
State association administrators across the country are quick to credit their executive staffs and support staffs for pitching in during the intense planning sessions. As models, scenarios and communications plans were formulated in association offices, many staff members were on the frontlines managing section, region or state tournament events. Plans were changing by hour, if not by the minutes. Hastily arranged news conferences to field media questions ensued at many state tournament events.
“It was moving fast; the common theme was that we really had to come together as a staff for our schools and the health of our public,” Holaday said.
“You find out what kind of team you have in times of crisis,” Martens said. “No one person owned a decision. We did it together. Nobody owns it solely, but we own it together. We kept our schools constantly informed and that meant a fair amount of hours on the weekends. We needed to be prepared. We had a good dozen staff members that played crucial roles.”
“We had each and every department working on every scenario,” Snodgrass said. “We worked harder than we have ever worked before. Our staffs, our departments were all on the same page. We are probably closer now than we have ever been.”
Holaday, Martens and Snodgrass played pivotal roles in the delivering of messages to member schools and media. Holaday handles communications for the KSHSAA while Martens and Snodgrass were the designated spokesmen for their respective associations to ensure consistency in messaging.
Snodgrass shared an anecdote he learned from listening to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he addressed the media following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He recalls Rumsfeld pointing directly to the camera and saying, “Let me tell you about rumors. We are not going to address rumors. For any that we don’t address, people will think that they are true. We put out fact on a regular basis.” Following suit, Snodgrass doesn’t address speculative questions or queries about when participants might return to school or when athletics will be reinstated.
“I’m not trying to micro-manage, but I want one consistent message,” Snodgrass said. “I dabbled in television for a bit during my teaching and coaching career and I wasn’t very good at it. But I do know how important messaging is. We don’t necessarily deliver breaking news all the time, but we do provide updates along the way to our schools, their communities and the public. That is crucial.”
Martens says there are many voices behind his messaging.
“While it is one voice delivering the messages, all of the information is provided by a team,” he said. “Our schools have been living with an unknown. It was, and remains, vitally important for us to continue that constant communication.”
Tim Leighton is communications coordinator for the Minnesota State High School League.