It was a whirlwind couple of days when it came to decisions regarding sports in Illinois last week.

After months of waiting to see when, or even if, sports would be allowed under COVID-19 restrictions this school, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced last week that sports could be played.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, announced Friday that all IHSA and IESA sports can be played in regions that reach and stay within Phase 4 of IDPH COVID-19 mitigations. As reported by the News-Gazette’s Colin Likas, Ezike, during a news conference alongside Gov. J.B. Pritzker, was asked specifically about basketball and responded, “If your region is in Phase 4, you can play basketball.” Shortly after Ezike’s announcement, the IDPH’s all-sports policy webpage was updated. Higher-risk sports and indoor medium-risk sports, the latter including volleyball, are allowed intra-conference and intra-region competition under Phase 4 of IDPH mitigations. Outdoor medium-risk sports, including soccer, and lower-risk sports are allowed out-of-conference and out-of-state play, tournaments and state series under Phase 4. The IHSA Board of Directors is slated to meet this coming Wednesday to discuss, among other things, schedules for the school year’s remaining sports seasons. IHSA executive director Craig Anderson previously said competitive start dates for lower-risk winter sports would be established prior to that Wednesday meeting, and it’s not clear if that now extends to basketball as well. IHSA and IESA sports were paused in all regions on Nov. 17, after lower-risk fall sports were conducted between August and October. That held firm until last Friday, when Pritzker announced changes to IDPH’s all-sports policy that allowed lower- and medium-risk winter sports to compete and higher-risk winter sports to conduct intra-squad scrimmages in regions that reached Tier 1 or Phase 4 of IDPH mitigations. The IHSA at that time also established contact days for spring, summer and fall sports that were set to begin Monday in regions outside Tier 3 mitigations.

Speaking at Thursday’s Hoopeston Area Board of Education meeting Thursday night, Hoopeston Area Athletic Director Nathan Burkowski outlined tentative plans for a return to sports in the district.

Though he was speaking prior the IDPH announcement, Burkowski said discussions about sports returning started as soon as the state adjusted the tier-rankings for each region and moved Region 6 into Phase 4.

Burkowski said he had met with other athletic directors the previous Thursday to come up with a plan for sports this school year, but the state’s decision unraveled all those plans.

“We met last Thursday and thought we had a plan in place then the news hit, I hadn’t even seen it yet, but my phone kept going off, so I finally looked and saw that we were dropped down, completely skipped Tier 2 and just went straight to Tier 1 from Tier 3 which then allowed everybody to start practicing for winter sports.”

Burkowski said everyone was excited and eager to get back to practicing, so he spoke with Superintendent Robert Richardson and carved out a plan to get things going with practice on Wednesday.

He said both Middle School and High School sports started practicing. Volleyball got the chance to take the court first since they need to have seven practices before they can have a game. This lined up well with a game that was scheduled to take place against Salt Fork on Jan. 28. Burkowski spoke with Salt Fork officials and they decided to push the game a day and rescheduled it for Jan. 29.

Burkowski said the Middle School volleyball team will play their first game then and they still have nine or 10 games left on their schedule that they could potentially play this season.

He touched on the possibility of resuming a boy’s basketball schedule but said that was still considered a high-risk sport at the time of the meeting.

“But, who knows, that could change tomorrow,” Burkowski said.

He said the plan was to get the players practicing and get them used to being on the court again and wait to see what happens.

“They’re in the gym. They’re ready to practice,” he said. “They’re just waiting on the date. They’re just waiting for somebody to tell them they can play.”

Burkowski said the Middle School girl’s basketball team won’t start their season until March as the season had already been pushed back.

He said postseason plans for these sports are still under discussion by the IESA.

As for high school sports, Burkowski said he and other athletic directors from around the state had met with IHSA Director Craig Anderson and discussed the situation on Jan. 19.

Anderson said the first priority for the IHSA is to give the typical spring sports, such as baseball, softball and track, the opportunity for a full-season since they were denied that chance last year due schools moving to remote learning in the spring.

Burkowski said Anderson didn’t present the athletic directors with a firm timeline of when all this would happen.

He said the IHSA has a board meeting on Jan. 27 where they are supposed to come up with a plan of what schedules are going to look like.

Burkowski said Anderson talked about leaving the basketball season where it is now or possibly extending it a few weeks.

He said volleyball, along with football and soccer, are set to begin Feb. 15, though there is a good chance volleyball could be moved up a few weeks. Anderson mentioned that the start date for football could be moved back a bit as well.

“Hopefully next week we’ll have some more answers,” Burkowski said.

Burkowski said he spoke with Richardson about the prospect of allowing fans for both Middle School and High School games.

In Phase 4, he said, the limit for the number of people allowed in a gym should be at 50.

Burkowski said he had heard from other athletic directors about this prospect and schools around the state seem to be split with about half of them just saying no fans will be allowed while other are looking at alternative options for letting a limited number of people in.

Burkowski showcased how allowing fans would be difficult by pointing to an upcoming sixth, seventh and eighth grade volleyball game night against Milford.

He said Hoopeston will have more than 25 players and staff representing their team their and so will Milford.

“How do you decide whose going to get a ticket to come see their kid?” Burkowski said.

Burkowski said the main reason the school district had installed new cameras in the gyms was so it could livestream games for the public.

“Rather than create the headaches of having fans, we’re just not going to have fans until we get more guidance from the state,” he said.

“Some answers, but still a lot of questions, right?” Board President Dave McFadden said after Burkowski concluded his remarks.

“It could change tomorrow, whatever I tell you today,” Burkowski said.

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