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PHOENIX — A press conference by the governor, in addition to a subsequent tweet from the Arizona Interscholastic Association, left people with more questions than answers last week.

Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman held a press conference last Thursday that addressed the issue of when and how Arizona schools would reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Ducey, who previously issued an executive order about returning to school Aug. 17, did not announce the confirmation or the modification of that date at the press conference.

Shortly after the press conference finished, the official AIA Twitter account tweeted, “With Governor Ducey’s latest announcement that the start of in-person school has not changed, AIA fall season will move forward as scheduled. Aug. 17 is the first date of practice.”

While there was nothing factually inaccurate about the tweet, it was misleading to many people. It sounded like things were full steam ahead to start Aug. 17. In reality, that is not the case.

David Hines, executive director of the AIA, told PinalCentral the AIA’s stance on returning to sports is that it won’t happen until there is in-person instruction at Arizona schools. Some schools will start with virtual instruction, and some will have a hybrid model.

But the fact remains that sports will not begin until Ducey gives the green light for a return to in-person instruction.

“We have used that current date of Aug. 17 as a target, but we have no final decision in place,” Hines said.

Hines said the AIA has three or four meetings set through Wednesday of next week. Those meetings will include the AIA’s crisis management team and its executive board.

The AIA has reached out to the Governor’s Office for clarification on how it wants to proceed, but it is awaiting a government response that provides more information. But Hines added the AIA has been in contact with representatives from Ducey’s office.

A source of frustration for Hines is things that are out of his control and even out of the governor’s control. Specifically, the personal responsibility each person has to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

“If everyone was wearing a mask and following protocols, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” he said, encouraging everyone to wear a mask, socially distance and wash their hands.

With that in mind, the AIA drafted modifications to its recommended guidelines for returning to sports. Those modifications have been sent to the Governor’s Office and other stakeholders, and they have been reviewed.

Hines said he’s expecting to release the details of those modifications to the public sometime next week. But they will include a mandate for coaches to wear masks at all times, and for athletes to wear masks as much as possible until they are physically competing on a field or court.

The uncertainty of everything was another issue Hines addressed, saying the AIA doesn’t have a crystal ball. Neighboring states such as California, New Mexico and Nevada have moved fall sports back to the winter or early spring.

Hines said the AIA is keeping every option on the table and will play fall sports in the winter or spring if that’s what the situation demands.

He also spoke about mental health. Hines said medical professionals he has talked to have told him mental health is a bigger concern for high school students than COVID-19. Suicide, he said, is an issue that can arise from a lack of social interaction that students are missing with school and sports.

Several schools in northern Arizona, mostly in Native American reservation territory, have canceled fall sports entirely. Hines is sensitive to their plight, as Native American communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19.

“I have relatives on the Hopi reservation. My wife is Hopi ... We respect the heck out of that,” he said of their decision to cancel fall sports.

The AIA has multiple plans in place for moving forward with sports. With so many aspects to consider, some important issues haven’t been thoroughly discussed.

“We haven’t even gotten to fans in the stands yet,” Hines said, adding the first priority is making sure it is safe for athletes to return to playing sports and giving them the opportunity to have that positive experience.

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.

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