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BRAD ROBICHAUX — Be prepared for unordinary sports this fall, beyond

There won’t be any normal seasons for fall high school sports this school year.

This is my opinion, of course, but it’s one in which I’m confident enough to state so boldly.

Already things are different. The University Interscholastic League announced Tuesday that changes have been made to the schedules for football, volleyball, cross country and team tennis for schools in classes 5A and 6A, which includes Memorial, Nederland and Port Neches-Groves high schools.

For football, the start of practice has been pushed back to Sept. 7 and Week 1 of competition to Sept. 14. Schools will still get to play 10 regular season games across 11 weeks, but that also means the state championships won’t take place until January next year.

Volleyball practices begin Sept. 7 as well, with the first games to be played Sept. 14.

Crowds will be allowed up to 50 percent capacity, and marching bands and cheerleader squads will be allowed too. For most people not actively participating in the game, masks will be required.

This isn’t unexpected. There isn’t going be a normal school year, either. Houston Independent School District and Dallas County issued orders that will keep students away from their campuses and extracurriculars until later into the school year.

Our own school districts have released plans that include virtual instruction options.

All schools are going to try to salvage what they can of their competition schedules while remembering that everything is subject to change based on how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, including the continuing viability of sports, not to mention in-person school instruction.

So what happens if the pandemic gets worse?

We’re told to avoid crowds, wear masks in public, regularly wash our hands and keep 6 feet away from other people. We’re told this is what people need to do to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

A few won’t, but I’m going to guess most students will wear their masks, wash their hands and stay away from others. I hope so, at least. They’re smarter than we sometimes give them credit for.

There’s one thing that can’t be so easily mitigated during in-person school — crowds. Inviting almost any number of people to sit together for an extended period of time inside a classroom can’t be conductive to slowing the pandemic.

I hope I’m wrong, and I hope the school districts do exceedingly well in all of their precautions, but I can’t help but think opening school doors to welcome all, or even just some, students back will almost certainly cause this virus to spread.

With increased spread comes more changes, and even possibly shutdowns. Extracurriculars, including sports, will follow suit.

On the other hand, I fully expect the UIL, which is issuing guidance for extracurriculars in Texas, along with our school districts and coaches, are going to do everything they can to have some kind of sports season, if only for the sake of the student-athletes that have put in so much work to get ready to play.

That might mean, should things change, that stadiums now allowed at half-capacity might need to become empty. The students just want to play, and efforts should be geared toward letting them play safely. I think everyone understands that.

If the virus spreads and the pandemic gets worse, though, playing safely may simply not be an option.

Any one of the conclusions I’m making here could be upturned if reality proves otherwise. The pandemic might get better. Our students, faculty and staff could pull together and the protocols put in place could effectively keep the virus at bay. A vaccine that is widely available to everyone would put the entire world on a fast trajectory back toward normalcy.

We all have to work to make those things happen, though. Wear your masks, wash your hands, stay apart and avoid crowds. This is what it’s going to take to let the kids play.

Brad Robichaux is a reporter for Port Arthur Newsmedia. He can be reached at brad.robichaux@panews.com

This column has been updated to include details on the UIL’s most recent guidelines released on Tuesday.