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A case for Alaska high school athletics, even this year

  • Author: Billy Strickland
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 9
  • Published March 9

Houston High School JV basketball coach Jacob Byrley talks with his team before a game against the Redington High Huskies on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 at Redington High in Wasilla. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District began requiring masks for all activities in February after a number of schools shifted to remote learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks largely associated with unmasked sports and after-school functions. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

I will never forget my phone ringing last March and being asked to call into a teleconference with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson. Dr. Anne Zink was also on the call. Just a few days prior to the Alaska School Activities Association 2020 March Madness state tournaments, I was being asked to postpone the event. After listening to their concerns, it was really a simple decision to make. Ultimately, ASAA canceled the basketball and cheer tournaments along with all of our spring seasons and championships. Schools went to remote learning and we all started to “hunker down.” Protecting the people of our great state was a higher need than awarding state championship trophies. Working together, Alaska was able to “flatten the curve” and not overwhelm our health care systems. Despite these efforts, we still lost loved ones, and my prayers go out to the affected families.

Now almost a year later, both ASAA and our member schools have learned a great deal about how to mitigate activities in such a way to limit the risks of COVID-19. Some may question ASAA and our schools, asking whether conducting activities is a wise decision in the current environment. For those able to develop strong mitigation plans and hold themselves accountable to the adherence of these plans, I believe the answer is “yes.” To comprehend why I feel this way, one needs to have an understanding as to the role participation plays in the educational system. Having worked in educational settings for more than 30 years, I have seen firsthand the way participation in educational-based activities benefits students — not only while they are students, but also in their adult lives. According to a study conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), “A Case for High School Activities,” here are some of the benefits:

? Activities support the academic mission of schools. They are not a diversion, but rather an extension of a good educational program. Students who participate in activity programs tend to have higher grade-point averages, better attendance records, lower dropout rates and fewer discipline problems than students generally.

? Activities are inherently educational. Activity programs provide valuable lessons and skills for practical situations – like teamwork, fair play and hard work. Through participation in activity programs, students learn self-discipline, build self-confidence and develop skills to handle competitive situations. These are qualities students need if they are to become responsible adults, productive citizens and skilled professionals.

? Activities promote health and well-being. Mental and physical health are improved through activities. Self-concept, self-image, physical activity and weight management are a few of these health benefits realized through activity participation.

? Activities foster success in later life. Participation in high school activities is often a predictor of later success – in college, a career and becoming a contributing healthy member of society.

Conducting activities this year is not without many challenges, but is very important to the overall physical and mental health of our students. A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin last spring unfortunately reported a tremendous increase in the number of students reporting mild to severe depression, while also showing a 50% decline in their physical activity. I believe our Alaska students had similar experiences. Therefore, over last spring and summer, ASAA, along with our member schools spent a great deal of time developing mitigation plans in order to have activities. These efforts continued into the fall and are still ongoing. I would like to thank DHSS and DEED for making themselves constantly available for consultations and guidance.

The experience has not always been smooth, and ASAA has not always felt able to host statewide events, but I am very happy to announce ASAA does plan on hosting Alaska’s own March Madness in the Palmer/Wasilla area this year. With the Anchorage School District not allowed to host the event, ASAA reached out to the Mat-Su School District to gauge its willingness to host. We felt their four large facilities would allow ASAA to conduct the tournament while permitting a limited number of spectators. For those not able to attend due to distance or being at increased risk for severe illness, all games will be webcast by the NFHS Network. ASAA is grateful to the Mat-Su School District for the use of its facilities and their staff’s assistance in hosting this upcoming event. As always, safety was paramount in making our decision. Therefore, ASAA will further strengthen our mitigation plan by requiring masks to be worn by all those in attendance.

While other parts of the state were considered, keeping the event in the Southcentral area does not increase the travel time for the attending schools. It will not force our “road system” schools to fly to the event or force them into longer-than-anticipated bus rides. Consideration was also given to our “off-the-road-system” schools that attend March Madness, Alaska. Historically about 84% of these schools have to first fly into Anchorage when traveling to attend. Additionally, a significant amount of the officials, scoreboard operators, scorekeepers along with the other support staff required to operate the event are from the Southcentral area. ASAA realizes there is a limited number of hotels in the Palmer/Wasilla area, so games are being scheduled to allow schools to stay in Anchorage if they wish.

As I write this, a review of the DHSS website currently shows the Kenai Borough as the only road system area not at the “red” or “high” alert level. Hopefully, we’ll see the numbers go down, and ASAA continues to promote the use of mask, social distancing and frequent hand washing as a way to help keep each other safe. However, regardless of where a state championship event is held, a school’s choice to attend should be based on its ability to develop strong mitigation plans and hold themselves accountable to the adherence of these plans. I believe this is also true for any spectators choosing to attend. As always, DHSS, DEED and ASAA are available to provide consultation on mitigation plans.

Already, we have seen some school districts choosing not to participate this year. ASAA respects these difficult decisions and knows they were based on what the districts feel is the best course of action. For those able to attend, please know ASAA looks forward to seeing your students and fans and to sharing the joy of your team’s successes. However, much like a team entering the fourth quarter, now is the time for all Alaskans to dig deep, find that extra dose of resolve and the mental toughness needed to keep doing the hard things required to win the game. Do it for yourself, the elders of your community and so students can gain the lifetime benefit of educational-based activities.

Billy Strickland is the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, which governs high school athletics in Alaska.

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