Lesson learned: How a Utah high school football team plans to prevent future COVID-19 issues

Coronavirus Updates

Highland High School

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Just hours away from Highland High School’s season-opening football game against Bountiful on Aug. 13, Athletic Director Daniel Shwam sat down with Principal Jeremy Chatterton and Head Coach Kautai Olevao to discuss the Rams’ chances for the upcoming season.

However, around 10 a.m., as the group of football-loving school administrators were excitedly discussing the implementation of brand new offensive and defensive systems, word came down from the school district, due to a positive COVID-19 test, the game would have to be canceled.

“It was tough, it was a really disappointing day for the kids, for the parents, for me,” Shwam explains to ABC4.com.

Scrambling to find a way to get the teams on the field, Shwam and his staff proposed a number of solutions. They offered to conduct rapid testing on the entire team, but there simply wasn’t enough time to conduct the full process and the necessary contact tracing related to the infected player. They also suggested they could send only their vaccinated players to the game but realized they wouldn’t be able to field a team with only 20% of the squad fully shielded.

With no choice otherwise, the game had to be canceled.

The effects from the last-minute cancelation – which was set to be played as an exhibition endowment game and wouldn’t count in the standings – carried over to the next week.

Highland isolated its players from each other for the next five days, before conducting team-wide testing on Wednesday. Fortunately, all the players who were tested were cleared to play, but not wanting to risk anything, the Rams coaches elected for noncontact practices before their next game against Pine View.

Having gone more than a week without a functional practice or game setting, the play on the gridiron suffered. In a 35-0 blowout loss to the Panthers, Highland was riddled with missed tackles, bad snaps, and turnovers.

Shwam, a longtime coaching veteran and lifelong football insider, calls the outcome of that game, “predictable.”

“The opening kickoff went back 90-odd yards, and we didn’t put a finger on him,” he remembers. “We had all the things you would think would happen when a team is sitting around doing nothing for a week and only having two noncontact practices.”

With hard lessons learned to begin the football season along with the start of the school year for most of the state, Shwam is hoping his athletes will take accountability to avoid future cancellations of games and practices.

“We got to talk to our kids and be more diligent with our kids,” he says. “They’re just gonna have to be more responsible, and the parents too, and the parents learned a valuable lesson also.”

Due to school district constraints, Shwam and other faculty members are unable to recommend or require their students to receive a vaccination. While Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has enacted emergency powers to mandate masks in public schools within the city limits, guidelines for outdoor athletic events, such as football games, have not yet been announced.

The leadership at the Utah High School Activities Association is putting control of mitigating any COVID-19 related situations in the hands of the school boards. Should any future cancelations be deemed necessary, the game will be called a no-contest.*

“The UHSAA governing boards are encouraging local schools and local school districts to work with their local health departments in making decisions regarding COVID-19 in their local school communities,” the association’s Assistant Director Jon Oglesby remarks in a statement to ABC4.com.

While he can’t make any requests or demands from his athletes, Shwam feels the writing on the wall is clear: teams that practice safe social gathering principles and take precautions such as vaccination have a better chance of finishing the season without missing any games due to a COVID issue.

“You’ve got to be more responsible, you can’t be hanging out with 25 kids you don’t even know,” has been his message to the Rams, Shwam explains.

Since he can only control so much of his team’s conduct off the field, Shwam is banking on the players to keep an eye on each other to keep their season intact. The Rams’ seniors, in particular, will likely be asked to take a larger role in doing so.

“These seniors, this is their last go-round and we don’t want to COVID to wipe out their season,” Shwam states. “I think some of those things are going to start happening, you’re going to see better leadership among the team. And that’s really important because it can come from kid to kid, saying what to do and how to do things as opposed to myself or Kautai or the school district.”

After one cancelation and a poor performance the next week, Shwam expects things to be better for the rest of the season.

“I think moving forward, if I had to guess and I’m hoping I’m right, I think we’ll be better. I think we’ll do a better job with it.”

*EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this state incorrectly stated that any cancelations due to COVID-19 issues would be called a forfeit. That has since been clarified to state that a cancelation will actually be called a “no-contest.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Utah Coronavirus

More Coronavirus Updates

IN FOCUS

More In Focus

Justice Files

More Justice Files