The University Interscholastic League’s (UIL) Tuesday morning announcement regarding the modified start of the 2020-21 athletic year provided clarity for some schools in Texas.

But in the Rio Grande Valley, where COVID-19 positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths have turned the area a national hotspot, the UIL’s announcement only brought with it more questions.

The UIL released guidelines and a modified calendar for the upcoming year, and it impacts big schools and small schools differently, and details what a game will look like amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Schools classified 6A and 5A, the UIL’s largest classifications, saw the start to their athletic seasons pushed back from the original date of Aug. 3 to over a month later on Sept. 7. This has moved the 5A and 6A football playoffs into December, with state championships to be played in early January.

“We needed this to start, and that’s what the UIL did today. I expected to start Sept. 7, I expected them to push it back a month and have the season extend into January, which I think is very doable,” Mission Veterans athletic coordinator and head football coach David Gilpin said. “That’s before baseball, softball, track and field get going, and they don’t have their first practices or first meet until January and February. We’ve always overlapped some with soccer and basketball and some individual sports, so I thought that this was a doable plan.”

Schools classified from 1A through 4A, are still allowed to begin athletics on the original date of Aug. 3. Their seasons and state championships will go on as scheduled, with the football state championship games being played the week before Christmas.

While the UIL has labeled Aug. 3 and Sept. 7 as dates teams can hold their first practices, recent orders from local county health officials across the RGV don’t allow athletics to begin in Cameron Co. until Sept. 7, and Hidalgo and Starr Co. until Sept. 28 at the earliest.

“Schools will not be allowed to host any school-sponsored events and activities, such as clubs, sports, fairs, exhibitions, and academic or athletic competitions, until after on-campus instruction resumes (Sept. 27). At least two weeks before resuming on campus instruction, each school district must develop and submit a plan to parents and the public for their re-opening,” the order from Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez states.

So while schools from Class 1A through 4A begin their seasons with the first day of practice on Aug. 3, small schools in the RGV won’t be allowed to begin practice until eight weeks later, in accordance with the local health orders.

RGV Class 4A schools like Grulla, Hidalgo, La Feria and Raymondville are some of those smaller programs that will be affected by a delayed start due to the impact of COVID-19 in the Valley.

Hidalgo head football coach Monty Stumbaugh said the Aug. 3 start date for small schools from the UIL caught him by surprise when it was announced Particularly because while Pirates athletes aren’t able to practice and waiting for their season to start, District 16-4A DI football opponents like Kingsville King and Zapata will have the luxury of having played a full schedule up until that point.

“I was kind of shocked, really when I saw the dates because our county can’t do anything until Sept. 27. I honestly thought the UIL would have everybody start on the same day,” Stumbaugh said. “Then I saw this, and down here on our side, I think we kind of got the shaft because we can’t start until Sept. 27.”

If teams like Hidalgo are forced to wait until Sept. 27 to begin their season, they won’t have time for any scrimmages or non-district games. The Pirates were originally slated to face Orange Grove, Alice and
Rio Grande City during non-district play. Now, those games likely won’t happen.

“Grulla is in the same boat we’re in right now, we play each other the first district game. But if we’re able to start Sept. 27, that means we’ll have five days of acclimation, six days of pads, the next week we’ll play our first game and it’s a district game,” Stumbaugh said. “Our situation is we’re kind of in wait and see mode. Are they going to let us practice and when? Can we go the (Sept.) 27th? Hidalgo and Grulla, we’re up in the air really. It’s kind of just wait and see.”

For 5A and 6A schools, the entire football schedule has essentially been pushed back by one month. 5A and 6A schools in Cameron Co. may be able to begin practices on Sept. 7, but Hidalgo and Starr Co. schools will have to wait nearly three weeks after for their first day of practices.

Some programs like Mission Veterans are busy covering their bases preparing for a Sept. 28 start date, an adjusted Sept. 7 start date, and for the worst case scenario, the cancellation of fall sports entirely if the Hidalgo County Local Health Authority deems it unsafe.

“One of the hardest things I would have to do is like our spring sports did, have to tell their kids their season is canceled. Now that was state-wide. For our kids in the Valley, if we are not playing, if the county judges don’t allow us to go back to school or local school districts don’t allow their schools to participate, and they’re looking and seeing people play football in Texas and they’re being left out, that’s a tough, tough conversation you have to have with your kids, and that’s one I really hope doesn’t come to path.”

One thing is clear — the next few weeks and numbers related to COVID-19 positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths in the RGV will continue to impact the fluid situation of the start of athletics in the Valley.

McAllen ISD athletic director Paula Gonzalez said the UIL’s announcement is the first domino to fall, which now allows teams to begin moving forward with plans for the 2020-21 athletic year.

“Right now I think there’s still a lot of wait and hope. We need to be really cautious and take it (COVID-19) seriously,” Gonzalez said. “We should take a step back and reflect, do the simple precautions we’ve been asked to do so we can see the numbers go down. We all have to help. Once that happens, then things will start falling in place.”

bramos@themonitor.com