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A Phase 1.5 including shared use of equipment could be on the horizon as South Carolina eyes a return to high school sports, but a fall sports season is far from certain as positive COVID-19 cases continue to rise within the state.

Phase 2 in South Carolina's return to high school sports remains out of reach – casting doubt over a fall season – and South Carolina High School League commissioner Jerome Singleton said Thursday that a Phase 1.5 is a possible mid-point as targeted starting dates for competition draw nearer.

Phase 1, which Aiken County public schools began this week, is essentially only strength training and conditioning limited to small groups in separate facilities. Singleton said a Phase 1.5 – which he stressed is still only in a "thinking phase" – could include shared use of sports equipment like the passing of a ball.

"When we went to (Phase) 2, we said that would involve a modified form of competition. Well, we're not ready for that," Singleton said. "But we're thinking we could possibly do some things where the group that is in place has an opportunity to share equipment or implements, being a football or baseball or basketball. We currently have it where only one person can touch it and they can't share it with another person. One of the changes that we would consider is to allow multiple people to touch the same instrument or implement or equipment." 

The SCHSL's COVID-19 safety guidelines are no longer guidelines – those are now requirements following Thursday's executive meeting, and there are penalties for illegal workouts if those requirements are not met. Penalties include fines and increase in severity, up to postseason ineligibility for a third offense.

However, as Singleton stressed, what happens in the workouts makes up a very small portion of the day.

"What occurs away from these workouts is probably more important than what occurs at the workout," he said, adding that South Carolina high school students have contracted the virus but there's no indication it was contracted on school grounds. "Everybody's got to play a role in promoting that we've got to be safe. We've got to be safe all around. Nobody's immune to this. The news media is constantly reinforcing and telling you that we need to be very cautious in the things that we do. There's a lot of challenges still attached to it. We're going to look at it, and it's a moving target. I wish I had a definitive answer on any of these things, but what I tell you today may be obsolete tomorrow."

The fall sports season is far from a sure thing, especially considering fall sports like football, volleyball and cheer are the ones the SCHSL considers to carry a higher risk of infection. While football is the big-money sport that keeps athletic departments afloat, the rising number of COVID-19 cases in South Carolina has Singleton questioning whether any sport will be safe to play if – not when – school is back in session in the fall.

"I'm very concerned. The numbers are indicating that there's constantly a growing number of positive cases," he said. "What we originally thought was that those positive cases were basically affecting those 60 years old and older. Now the indication is, as far as South Carolina, the people that are being affected and testing positive, that age group is now moving to 15 to 25. Well, that's our students. Fifteen to 25, that's our population. In fact, I've had some conversations with DHEC, and they're thinking that number may change again – they're thinking it may go down as far as 7 years old to 25. That's truly all of our kids, including middle schools and high schools. I'm very concerned. If changes don't come into place, it's going to be very hard for us to be able to put any of our fall sports season together."

That could mean a delayed start, an early finish, fall sports being moved to spring or everything being scrapped altogether, and Singleton is willing to consider having any of those conversations. There's still so much that's unknown that he cannot commit to any concrete deadlines, but he said he's confident the SCHSL will craft a plan that's in the best interest of players, coaches, staff and their safety.

"It's a moving target. We have the ability to reduce the number of games. We have the ability to reduce the number of playoff contests. We have the ability to decide that there's no playoffs involved and give these kids more opportunities to play," he said. "It's a moving target. How many games are we willing to sacrifice to still get it in? That would be the question. We want to send out a survey to the membership, actually, and ask some of those same type of questions to get a feel from the membership, see what their thoughts are, and that would give me a little more guidance as to what I can present to the members."

Singleton admitted the feedback he's received has been more frustration than confusion relating to the SCHSL's safety guidelines, especially considering the league left a lot of the decision-making up to individual school districts. A primary complaint has been that some schools could gain a competitive advantage by returning to action earlier than others are allowed to.

"Phase 1 only involves strength training and conditioning and limited use of equipment that can't be shared," he said. "You really can't put together any plans with it. That's where we are, fortunately. As we move through to other phases, that's where it becomes much more important and opportunities for people to get some advantages. Let's talk about the advantages – some of them had more time, some of them have more resources. All those things can translate into what we perceive as being a competitive advantage. We're going to try to work and maintain an understanding of the safety of the kids that we don't put them in a position where they have to be physically ready prior to them being able to being physically ready."

No decision yet to appeal lawsuit

Singleton said Thursday that there's been no decision made yet to appeal a Richland County judge's decision in favor of public charter and private schools in their lawsuit against the SCHSL.

Judge Jocelyn Newman on Monday granted an injunction that would push back amendments related to transfer and eligibility rules deemed to be illegal and "contrary to the League's mission and purpose."

Singleton said he will follow the guidance of the SCHSL's legal team moving forward.

Kyle Dawson covers sports for the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @ItsKyleDawson. Sign up for a digital subscription at https://bit.ly/2AxVx3A