Karissa Niehoff

Keeping High School Activity Programs Going During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Karissa Niehoff

As one of the few countries in the world where athletics are available in an education-based setting within schools, high school students in the United States indeed have a special opportunity and privilege of competing not only in athletics, but also in other activity programs such as speech, debate, music, and theater.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and its 51-member state associations (50 states plus the District of Columbia) have been coordinating these programs for the 19,500 high schools for more than 100 years. The number of students involved in these activity programs is staggering – 8 million participants in sports, 4 million students in performing arts. Also participating are 500,000 teachers, coaches, and officials, and 300 million-plus fans at contests and events throughout the school year. Whether as a participant, parent, coach, official, teacher, administrator, community supporter, or general fan, millions are invested in the greatest education-based programs in the country: high school sports and performing arts.

Education-based athletics and other programs often have been referred to as extracurricular activities. Since sports and other activities occur after school, are not required for all students, and typically do not assign a grade as a part of the regular curriculum, they have been viewed by some people as “extra” or additional activities. As a result, the perception may be that involvement in these programs is not connected to the learning and education of the classroom, which is not the case. Instead, these programs should be called cocurricular activities. At times, extracurricular and co-curricular have been used interchangeably when, in fact, they are not synonymous terms. The term “co-curricular” makes a huge difference in connecting activities to the classroom and supporting the concept of education-based activities.

Co-curricular programs are activities sponsored by a school that are not a part of the academic curriculum but are acknowledged to be important to the overall learning process in a school. While athletics and the performing arts of music, speech and debate, and theater are the most common cocurricular activities, other programs offered by state associations include academic competition, journalism, robotics, chess, visual arts, and esports, among many others.

Co-curricular programs allow learning to take place beyond the regular school day – from the classroom to the athletic field or music rehearsal hall. Similar to teachers who influence learning in the classroom, coaches of sports or debate teams function as educators who can influence learning through sports and activities. And perhaps most importantly, what students may not learn in the classroom, they can learn on stage, in gymnasiums, or on the playing field. Completing the educational process through activities, students learn teamwork, fair play, and how to handle competitive situations. They develop important qualities such as self-confidence, self-discipline, and leadership skills.

And then came 2020 and the crisis that brought life to a standstill. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our nation’s schools and the opportunity to compete in school sports and other activities. In March, as difficult as it was, a complete shutdown of activities was necessary to slow the spread of the virus while mitigation efforts were put in place. However, the cessation of in-person classes and education-based sports and performing arts – a co-curricular endeavor – came at a cost. Although the health and safety of everyone relative to COVID-19 has been at the forefront, the need for students to return to schools and to activity programs is also important.

In a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine after the March shutdown of schools, 68 percent of the state’s student-athletes surveyed reported symptoms of depression by May. Tim McGuine, University of Wisconsin researcher who serves on the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, said about 65 percent of Wisconsin student-athletes reported anxiety symptoms due to COVID-19 closures. This study confirmed that involvement in high school sports and activities also promotes mental health and emotional wellness, which is so important during the COVID-19 pandemic when students have been separated from teammates and competition. Following is a link to the University of Wisconsin study:


The overarching reason that high schools and state associations have worked with government, education, and health leaders to offer these programs if at all possible during the pandemic is that many students desperately need these activities. The experience of playing on a high school team may be one of the only positive aspects of their lives, and the high school coach or director of a speech or music group may be their only positive role model. In some cases, the opportunity to play sports is the chief motivator to attend classes, graduate, obtain a job, and begin a life on their own. Regardless of whether the structure is the same as in the past, or if the same number of games are played or even if state championships occur, the continuance of these programs is crucial.

In all cases, minimizing risks to students, coaches, officials, and others is the No. 1 consideration in conducting high school sports. However, with students disengaged from activity programs for long periods of time, the physical health concerns of the virus must be weighed against the psychological health concerns of being separated from school and activities. Leaders of state high school associations, in working with state government, education, and health officials, have done a phenomenal job of balancing the need for these vital programs against the safety concerns related to the coronavirus.

Even in those situations where actual competition has been restricted due to the virus, they have worked hard to get students engaged in something that has to do with the life of the school, the life of the team, the life of the activity, and the mentorship of the coach.

Without a doubt, students learn better when they are involved in co-curricular activities.


Karissa L. Niehoff is starting her third year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS, which celebrated its 100th year of service during the 2018-19 school year. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.