Nordic skiing is the first winter sport in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to get the all-clear.
The district has approved a mitigation plan and skiers will rejoin their practice pods Monday. The first race is planned for Jan. 16, three days before most students will resume in-person classes.
Kyle McFall, the athletic director for Soldotna High School who submitted the plan to the district, said reactions about getting back to the ski trails have been twofold.
“That obviously brought a lot of excitement for athletes, not just ones who are participating in skiing but also those who are participating in other sports, because it gives them some hope that maybe their seasons will happen," he said. "But there's also some apprehension because of how the fall has kind of unfolded. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
It helps that skiing is an outdoor sport, so air circulation will be better. The one exception is ski waxing, which will be delegated to coaches.
It also helps that it’s an individual sport. Teams will be divided into pods for practicing and going to events, so that if someone in a pod is exposed to the virus, they can isolate just that pod.
Homer, Kenai, Soldotna and Seward all have nordic ski programs. Teams usually race against other districts but all races will be kept within the peninsula this year.
It’s a highly anticipated season for student athletes who have been taking classes from home and had other sports seasons cut short.
Tyler Hippchen is a senior at KCHS and a member of the school’s ski team.
“With some of the cancelations of some of the later races in March, I’ve just been really itching to get out there and compete and I’ve put in a lot of hours over the summer, and I know a lot of my friends are really excited to get back out there and race," he said. "And the season is super short, so we gotta make the most of it while we can.”
Athletes will be screened before practices and will wear face coverings, according to the plan. Students won’t be able to use restrooms or locker rooms and there will be a maximum two spectators per athlete allowed at competitions.
The district has adjusted its spectator policies since fall, McFall said, when most sports teams got partial seasons as activities were canceled.
“When we first started doing this, back in August, early September, we were having to screen spectators and the check-in process was really intensive," he said. "And fortunately as we went through it, ASAA and KPBSD kind of, they didn’t relax on those policies, but they didn’t make us continue to screen. So that’s been one thing that’s kind of gone away, made our jobs a little bit easier.”
A designated “event monitor” will insure compliance with mitigation measures at practices and races. McFall said athletes were conscientious about following procedures this fall and that athletic directors were more concerned with getting spectators to adhere to guidelines.
“When we were having sports, we didn’t have any outbreaks," he said. "And I would say, for the most part, the athletes and coaches did an excellent job of following mitigation.”
Two Homer football coaches tested positive for COVID-19 in October but none of the athletes got sick at that time.
The Alaska School Activities Association, which sets statewide standards for returning to school sports, approved a schedule that would have hockey restarting Jan. 4 and basketball Jan. 11. But how that will play out also depends on the district and local facilities.
Several local teams practice and play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, which is currently closed to the public.