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We’re getting closer to the actual start of high school football games in Arizona, and some coaches and media members are nervous about a COVID-19 benchmark that needs to be reached. The worry is overblown, and it won’t stop the season from starting on time.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association has been diligent all summer in assembling a plan for the safe return to fall sports, most notably football. During the many phone calls, Zoom meetings and other discussions, the AIA has worked with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.

The regular season is set to begin Oct. 2.

When the AIA released a revised set of recommended guidelines for returning to athletics this fall, the SMAC added some new benchmarks on COVID-19 metrics. The revised guidelines, which were released Sept. 4, caused significant worry for some coaches, parents and even high school sports reporters.

Why all the fuss?

It comes down to this — subsection 4 of the document’s “Return to Athletics” includes recommendations based on “Level of spread within the community.” There are three levels of spread described in this section — minimal, moderate and substantial.

Minimal spread is indicated by fewer than 10 positive COVID-19 tests per 100,000 people; fewer than 5% positivity rate on COVID-19 PCR tests; and fewer than 5% of hospital visits due to COVID-like illness.

The number causing all the panic is the fewer than 10 positive tests per 100,000 people. It is an admittedly very stringent benchmark, one not highly realistic to achieve.

I’m not going to minimize the importance of these benchmarks. In fact, I believe the opposite. They are very important if we are going to mitigate the spread of the virus, keep people safe and keep high school sports alive for the fall and beyond.

However, these are recommended guidelines. That means the AIA is not going to swoop in and punish schools. That’s not the AIA’s role in this. Even if it wanted to, it couldn’t police every school.

Secondly, schools are still allowed to compete in the moderate spread category, which has less stringent benchmarks.

But people are forgetting the salient point here, and that is that school districts will ultimately decide whether or not their high schools will compete in football or other fall sports. Those school districts will be guided by the medical advisory committee’s benchmarks and by county health departments.

If school districts want to postpone athletics for whatever reason, they can. Pima County public schools already decided they would not start athletics until there is a return to in-person instruction on their campuses.

Districts and individual schools will also decide if fans are allowed in any capacity. Again, the AIA has nothing to do with that.

In Pinal County, I have not seen an indication that any school district is pushing back against the football regular season starting Oct. 2. Most schools across the state are moving forward with the idea of opening their 2020 season that Friday night.

The AIA is set to make an announcement Thursday regarding the SMAC’s community spread benchmarks for returning to play. The SMAC has had further internal discussions about its benchmarks.

Don’t expect any bombshells in Thursday’s announcement. Football will be played Oct. 2.

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

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