Edgerton quarterback Drew Hanson hands the ball to a referee after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of a Rock Valley Conference game Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, at Edgerton High School.

Before COVID-19 hit, finding game officials was one of the biggest problems facing high school sports in the state.

As more and more officials retire due to age, underlying health concerns and the increasing and incessant verbal abuse thrown their way, recruiting new officials is difficult.

For the few area schools that are participating in a fall sports season, finding officiating crews for football and officials for other fall sports such as cross country and volleyball has been tricky.

“I’ve heard that the Southern Lakes has had a small percentage of officials opt out that were already contracted, along with one complete football crew and about a half dozen volleyball officials,” Elkhorn Area High athletic director John Handel said. “And I totally respect any official that decides to not work.

“It’s really up to each district as to how they’re going to handle things and what will be required of officials going forward. I’m sure most will follow whatever CDC guidelines there are.”

Elkhorn, Delavan-Darien and Lake Geneva Badger are the only area schools competing in all of their typical fall sports. Big Foot and Parkview are participating in some fall sports. The rest, including Janesville Craig and Janesville Parker, opted for a shortened fall season in the spring of 2021.

Football, volleyball and boys soccer were officially allowed to start practice Monday, according to an amended WIAA calendar. Handel said that when the Southern Lakes Conference volleyball season begins, masks will be required for all.

“Anything held indoors is going to require masks for now,” Handel said. “And that includes everyone. Officials will be required to wear them, along with all players and coaches.

“Those on the court playing will not be required to wear one.

“For cross country, we will have four different races for each meet. That way there will never be more than 32 runners on the course at one time. And runners will have to wear masks up to the starting line.”

Chris Nicholson is the Janesville School District’s secretary to the athletic director and is in charge of scheduling officials for a variety of sports. He has also been officiating football, basketball, baseball and softball for 23 years. He was part of a football officiating crew that retired before the 2020 season. His last football game before officially retiring was a scrimmage held two weeks ago between two teams from Illinois.

“I wore a mask the entire time, and it was very uncomfortable,” Nicholson said. “You’ve got a whistle under your mask that you’re trying to blow, and I’ve always felt that as an official, one of your biggest responsibilities is to communicate with kids, and it’s tough to do that wearing a mask.

“I know there are officials out there now that aren’t going to do football games because of COVID. I’ve talked to them, and they just don’t feel safe enough doing it because of the unknown that comes with this pandemic.

“I just decided that after 23 years of doing this, I no longer have to worry about running from work to a game and not getting home before 11 (p.m.). And COVID shows no signs of hurrying up and going away, so that made the decision a little easier, too.”

Longtime pre-game traditions for high school football will look much different this year, according to Nicholson. Most schools typically send four or five players locked arm-in-arm or hand-in-hand to midfield to meet for the pregame coin toss. Nicholson said this year, just one player from each team will be allowed, and the ceremonial post-game handshake will also not take place.