SPRING SEASONS SILENCED

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UIL cancels all remaining activities, Heart of Texas reacts

AUSTIN – As Winston Churchill once said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

But especially for the Class of 2020, those words of wisdom don’t make it any less painful.

With Friday’s announcement from Governor Greg Abbott that all Texas schools will remain closed to in-person learning for the remainder of this 2019-20 school year due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) followed suit by cancelling all remaining spring activities and state championships in an effort to help protect the health and safety of our youth.

The decision to cancel school and all related activities represents an unprecedented abrupt end and disappointing conclusion to the secondary educational experience for the graduating Class of 2020 across the state.

“Our staff had been working hard on plans to resume activities this spring, but without schools in session, interscholastic activities cannot continue,” said UIL Executive Director Dr. Charles Breithaupt. “Our highest priority during this challenging time is ensuring the health and safety of our students and communities and making progress in the containment of COVID-19 in Texas.

“We are now turning our attention to the 2020-2021 school year.”

For the first time in more than 100 years, Gov. Abbott proclaimed a public health disaster in Texas March 19 due to coronavirus. In response, the UIL extended its suspension of all UIL-sanctioned activities indefinitely due to the pandemic.

In Texas, shutdowns have occurred only twice before due to two pandemics involving the H1N1 influenza virus: the 2009 swine flu pandemic and the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Although UIL officials postponed all public high school athletic and academic competitions in 2009, Texas schools returned to action after a two weeks layoff. But in 1918, activities were halted in early October and did not resume throughout the remainder of the school year.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic suspension, the UIL expressed the unwillingness to pull the plug on the winter and spring academic and athletic activities, even going so far as address that games and contests could resume after allowing its member schools a reasonable acclimatization period for practices to occur.

But when Gov. Abbott held a press conference at noon Friday, he issued three new Executive Orders to begin the process of reopening the state of Texas while revising hospital capacity and certain social distancing guidelines.

The Governor’s second Executive Order (GA-16) related to the safe, strategic reopening of select services and activities in Texas. On the surface, that sounded like good news. But under this Executive Order, schools—including public, private, and higher education institutions—will be closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

Teachers may go into the classroom for video instruction, to perform administrative duties, and to clean out their classrooms. But practices, rehearsals, and workouts remain suspended until further notice, while allowing remote instruction to remain in place. The UIL will continue to follow the direction of state authorities and will work closely with member schools to navigate this unprecedented time.

The University Interscholastic League was created by The University of Texas at Austin to provide leadership and guidance to public school debate and athletic teachers. Since 1910, the UIL has grown into the largest inter-school organization of its kind in the world.

The UIL exists to provide educational extracurricular academic, athletic and music contests. The initials UIL have come to represent quality educational competition administered by school people on an equitable basis.

“I am grateful to the UIL staff for their leadership and dedication to students,” said UIL Legislative Council Chair Curtis Rhodes. “Together, we will get through this and we look forward to the day students are once again able to participate in education-based interscholastic activities.”

In addition to spring activities such as baseball, softball, track & field, tennis and golf , the Boys State Basketball Tournament concluding the winter sports schedule was lost. The Girls State Championship games were played March 5-7 before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, the first such declaration in 11 years, leading the UIL suspension of activities.

“It was extremely disappointing to get the news that the remainder of our competitions have been cancelled,” Clifton athletic director Chuck Caniford said. “Our student-athletes have worked extremely hard, and for them to have it all cancelled before they were able to finish the year is extremely difficult. We were experiencing some great success and were so excited about the possibilities.”

HITTING CLOSE TO HOME

With graduating seniors of their own in the Class of 2020, Caniford and Meridian athletic director Wade Morton must come to grips on a personal level with the casualties of the cancellations.

“The decision by the UIL to cancel the remainder of the year was the right decision,” Morton said. “I have a senior of my own, and she’s heavily involved in sports. To not see her compete is disappointing, but her safety and the safety of all our athletes is the most important.

“Like I told my senior, this is an event in your life and how you respond to it determines your outcome. We can’t control an event that happens, but we can control how we react to it.”

While understanding the need to shut down and the valid reasons behind making the tough decision, coaches, parents and athletes alike still struggled with a sense of loss and regret over what might have been.

“This breaks my heart,” said Kristie Brandenberger of Clifton in a Facebook post. “I have been handling the situation with always looking for the positives, but after seeing this… I know it’s for the best and God had this planned from the day they were born.

“So, the seniors will use this to help shape them into what lies ahead and make it bigger and better than we all dreamed for them.”

As a parent to a graduating senior in the Class of 2020 as well as a coach to all Cub seniors, Caniford can relate to the disappointments from all directions.

“It is especially tough for our seniors,” Caniford said. “Not only do they miss out on finishing their competition seasons, but they miss out on so many of the things that they looked forward to in their last semester of high school.

“This is a special group to me personally. This is the first group of 7th graders we had when we got here, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching them grow and mature. I am confident that the achievements they had in high school will pale in comparison to what they will accomplish in life.”

Participating in athletics teaches students essential skills that they will use throughout their lives, such as effort, determination, self-discipline, team work and time management. But the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has forced the student-athlete to experience an unexpected life lesson.

“The greatest value of athletics for these kids is that it teaches the lessons that they can fall back on in life,” Caniford said. “This situation is a great opportunity for that. We always talk about controlling the controllables and not wasting time and energy on things that we can’t control. This is one of those situations. It is out of all of our control and we have to focus on how we move forward.”

FOCUSING ON THE FUTURE

As Breithaupt suggested, it’s now time to focus on planning for the 2020-21 school year. And with that, coaches have expressed concern that classes and the fall sports seasons could be impacted by the pandemic as well.

At the same time, summer workouts will be even more important than ever, as athletes will need to get conditioned for the road ahead after the spring layoff. But even though nobody really knows what will happen, Morton looks forward to the first day back.

“Kids will come back with a sense of urgency never seen before,” Morton said. “They’re having to persevere through all of this like everyone else and will come back more resilient and stronger than ever. To be honest, I can’t wait to see them and how they respond.”

But first, school officials must wrestle with how to say goodbye to the Class of 2020 while adhering to social distancing protocol.

“For our seniors, this is not the end but the beginning,” Caniford said. “It hurts right now, but this is something that they can use to fall back on in the future. It’s a real world reminder that nothing in life is guaranteed, and we have to cherish every moment we have. The only reality is the present, and we have to not only take advantage of every day, but appreciate each one we have.

“The class of 2020 will not be remembered for what happened to them, but rather for how they responded and for all that they accomplished.”

Photos by DAVID HARDING, WENDY OROZCO & SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

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