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Hawaii Department of Education postpones OIA’s fall sports season, mandates all athletes be fully vaccinated

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                OIA players and coaching staff are required to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 24. The private-­school ILH has not made an official announcement. Mililani wide receiver Gavin Hunter caught a pass as Saint Louis defensive back Kona Moore closed in during a scrimmage on Friday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    OIA players and coaching staff are required to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 24. The private-­school ILH has not made an official announcement. Mililani wide receiver Gavin Hunter caught a pass as Saint Louis defensive back Kona Moore closed in during a scrimmage on Friday.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The OIA’s regular season for football was supposed to start on Aug. 13, but has been postponed. Players and coaches from Saint Louis School and Mililani High School formed lines to say farewell after a scrimmage at Saint Louis on Friday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The OIA’s regular season for football was supposed to start on Aug. 13, but has been postponed. Players and coaches from Saint Louis School and Mililani High School formed lines to say farewell after a scrimmage at Saint Louis on Friday.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                At top, an empty Roosevelt High School football field.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    At top, an empty Roosevelt High School football field.

A state-issued vaccination mandate Wednesday will delay the start of fall sports among public schools, triggering more frustration and debate from high school coaches who haven’t seen an official football game played since 2019.

With the state’s high COVID-19 positivity rate, the state Department of Education announced, “All student-athletes, athletic staff and volunteers will need to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 24 to participate in school-sanctioned athletic activities for the 2021-22 school year. Full vaccination is defined as two weeks after a second dose in a two-dose series or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine.”

All fall sports practices are postponed until further notice.

In a letter addressed to parents and dated Aug. 4, interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi explained the postponement.

“We opened the new school year this week with in-person learning and our highest priority is to ensure all students, including your child, can continue to attend school safely. In the meantime, due to the state’s high positivity rate, the Department is delaying the start of the fall athletic season until Sept. 24 to allow for anyone unvaccinated or not yet fully vaccinated to get inoculated.

“This decision was not made lightly because we know the important role athletics play in a well-rounded education, but we cannot jeopardize the health and safety of our students and communities. The alternative is cancelling the season outright, which we do not want to have to do. We are implementing this layered plan that prioritizes vaccination as the best way to protect against and reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

The release said that “students and staff who get an initial COVID vaccine dose by Aug. 20 can be fully vaccinated by the Sept. 24 deadline. … Student-athletes and athletic staff and volunteers will be required to provide proof of full vaccination prior to participation in school-sanctioned athletic activities.”

Preseason football games were scheduled to begin on Friday. The OIA’s regular season was slated to start on Aug. 13.

The state’s public high school leagues postponed fall sports, including football, in 2020 because of the pandemic. Fall sports were later canceled. There has not been an official high school football game in Hawaii since the fall of 2019.

Preseason football games this weekend between Aiea and Leilehua, and Campbell and Waipahu already had been canceled due to the virus.

Some coaches are understanding, but others are doubtful that the right decisions are being made at the best time.

One coach who declined to be named questioned the level of fairness.

“My thing is, OK, why are they making the athletes vaccinate? What about the students in the school? It doesn’t make any sense. We’re closer to the students in the classroom than we are on the court or field. They say there’s social distancing in the classroom, but there’s not,” the coach said.

Longtime Kaimuki football coach David Tautofi has been frustrated by the lack of declaration from the top.

He doesn’t agree with the mandate that only student-athletes are required to be vaccinated by Sept. 24.

“I don’t agree with the decision (to postpone), but I understand it,” he said. “If it’s as deadly as they say it is, they’re playing a dangerous game. We’re just as susceptible to carrying it and spreading it if we’re vaccinated. My issue is, if it were me, I would let it be a personal decision, but if they do this, they need to go all in with the full DOE, all staff and students. They’re playing a deadly game. Those teachers and students are now at risk.”

Tautofi doesn’t expect a good outcome out of the segregation of student-athletes from the student body in terms of this policy.

“The biggest issue is the divisiveness this will cause when you’re isolating athletics from everything else,” he said. “It was easy for them to pull it off because coaches have no weight in the DOE. They have no representation. There’s no union to represent the coaches. I always try to think positive and give the benefit of the doubt. (Administrators) get paid big bucks to make impactful decisions for the kids. Going with how decisions have been made during the pandemic, it’s highly doubtful we will have a full season.”

By the DOE’s timeline, a Sept. 24 deadline for student-athlete vaccinations would keep teams and athletes away from practices and competition until Oct. 5 — two weeks after the inoculation deadline, the amount of time needed for the vaccine to kick in. That also means that a full season of nine regular-season OIA games, including playoffs, would extend the season into January.

Reaction by parents to restrictions and cancellations in other states like California has been forceful. That has not been the case in Hawaii.

“I just want to spark people to stand up and raise their voices,” Tautofi said. “For some reason, as a society, we don’t. I want our families to understand what’s going on. Fight for your kids’ education.”

Sterling Carvalho coached the Rebel Squad Pylon team to a title at a national tournament during the summer. Now he’s concerned that a second tackle football season at Kahuku will be steamrolled.

“It is frustrating that our players and parents have committed and sacrificed so much, practicing and training, just to have our season postponed,” Carvalho wrote in a text. “We do not want a repeat of last year.”

I feel for those parents and players who are having their agency tested to be vaccinated or not. Prayers going out to everyone that whatever decision is being made, that it will be the best for family and each individual.”

Carvalho, like other coaches, is anticipating a major exodus of student-­athletes to states that are playing football.

“Players got burnt once, and many families don’t want it to happen again. I know, as we speak, many schools are calling our players and parents. I just feel for these student-athletes. They just want to play,” he said.

Konawaena football coach Brad Uemoto has already seen five of his Wildcats depart.

“I can’t say I’m surprised. I feel that something different had to happen and, unfortunately, we’ve gotten to that point. Our five players who transferred account for nine starting positions. At a school like Konawaena, it is detrimental to our program to lose that much. We instantly go from contending to surviving,” Uemoto said. “I feel bad for the student-­athletes because they were so excited to get football back. It was a dangling carrot and, for the interim, it got taken away again. The uncertainty kills them and it’s just unfortunate.”

The exodus of local student-athletes flying to the mainland for sports is expected to hit new heights this fall. In Utah, vaccinations are not required, according to Brandyn Akana, father of highly recruited linebacker Tausili Akana.

Tausili Akana, a junior, was already enrolled at Skyridge High School in Utah and began practicing there this week. He played at another Utah school, Wasatch, last fall.

Nevada, which had a mini-season in the spring, is also not requiring vaccinations, according to Liberty offensive coordinator Chad Kapanui, who played at Roosevelt and the University of Hawaii. Utah and Nevada are beginning their fall sports season on schedule soon.

The timing could have been better, Moanalua football coach Vince Nihipali noted.

“I was a bit surprised over the length of time of the pause. It’s a couple weeks longer than I expected, but at least there is a start date moving forward,” he said. “I am bummed out that we won’t be able to go this week already, but that doesn’t stop the preparation for when we do start up again. More film and prep time for coaches, and some needed time for kids that are injured and would miss some time in the beginning of the season, also.”

The Red Raiders’ coach is still holding on to hope. His message to Kahuku players is about resilience.

“Stay positive. At least now we have an answer and direction in which we are going. It may not be what some players and parents want to hear, but at least we can have a full season with no cancellations if we adhere to these new mandates,” Carvalho said.

Meanwhile, the private-­school Interscholastic League of Honolulu has not made an official announcement. Two football coaches said they plan to continue team practices. They also noted that there could be a backup plan installed to have an ILH-only schedule until the OIA revs back up.

There is no word yet on the status for mainland trips. Mililani was slated to play national powerhouse Mater Dei, while Saint Louis was scheduled to play at Bishop Gorman on Aug. 20.

The reality of another delay is a gut punch for dedicated athletes and coaches.

“It kind of feels like Hawaii doesn’t want our student-athletes to return. It’s already hard enough for them to get exposure to the (colleges) on the mainland, and now we are pushing things back. It’s tough. The rest of the mainland is playing like there is nothing going on,” first-year Waialua football coach Gary Wirtz said. “Honestly, it is what it is. Nothing we can do about it but protect ourselves and our families. Get vaccinated if you’re not.”

Kapaa football coach Mike Tresler is asking his players and parents to stay the course, too.

“On the bright side, it’s a postponement and not a cancellation. I heard the rumblings about vaccinations, but the postponement is a complete surprise. We will keep student-athletes engaged and, hopefully, they can somehow maintain some of their physical conditioning. To start over again (in September or October) is tragic and very frustrating. There has to be a better way to transition. We live in unprecedented times. All we can do is remain positive and do our best to deal with the mandates.”

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