Football

While it’s still too early to know what fall sports may look like, the National Federation of State High School Associations issued a blueprint to use a guide to setting regulations.

As the country begins to slowly reopen, one of the big questions is when will high school sports be given the OK to start back?

On Tuesday, the Virginia High School League officials said they are developing plans for the reopening of fall athletics and activities and that as a follow-up by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) releasing a guidance for opening up high school athletics and activities on Wednesday.

All of these guidelines and recommendations hinge on Gov. Ralph Northam and his plans of reopening the state.

VHSL recently announced that until schools reopen there would be no sports, but there could be something done by the governor that would at least allow workouts and other activities to begin in the summer months.

The NFHS document is to be used as a guide on how to open up high school athletics and activities across the United States. This is the first document outlining any procedures or policies when it comes to high school sports since the coronavirus pandemic shut down nearly all aspects of life about two months ago.

The NFHS notes the recommendations presented in the document are intended to be ideas for each individual state association so that they can be in compliance with their state and local restrictions.

The NFHS laid out recommendations in an 11-page document that also included examples of forms for coaches to have the athletes fill out with health-related questions.

“The NFHS SMAC believes it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the nation to return to physical and athletic competition,” the opening statement of the document reads. “The NFHS SMAC endorses the idea of returning students to school-based athletics and activities in any and all situations where it can be done safely,” they added.

The VHSL already has a meeting scheduled for the end of June to discuss the future of fall sports and activities at Virginia high schools and with these guidelines from the NFHS coming out, they will have plenty to discuss and the possibility that there will be a concrete plan in place when that meeting concludes.

“VHSL staff continues to meet regularly with region superintendents, principals, athletic directors and the VHSL Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC). VHSL staff will begin meeting with Coach Advisory Committees of fall sports to discuss developing reopening plans,” the release stated.

The goal, according to the release, is to develop plans for multiple scenarios including start dates, safety measures for practices, regular season schedules and state playoffs for fall sports.

“What we have been doing and will continue to do, is to strongly advocate for our student-athletes for a reopening of fall sports and activities. We know much has been taken away from our students by the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to advocate for them and the return of high school athletics and activities,” said VHSL Executive Director Dr. John W. (Billy) Haun.

In the NFHS guidelines, officials gave points of emphasis in areas that need to be addressed and their recommendations for a three-phase plan of reopening sports similar to the way that Virginia is using their phases to reopen the state as a whole.

In the points of emphasis area they address the wearing of cloth masks. The state, local or school district guidelines for cloth face coverings should be strictly followed. They also said any student who prefers to wear a cloth mask covering during a game or practice should be allowed to do so. Coaches, officials and other contest personnel may also wear cloth face coverings at all times during phases one through three. They also suggest that artificial noisemakers such as air horns or a timer system with an alarm can be used in place of the traditional whistle.

NFHS also is asking state associations to be prepared for outbreaks of COVID-19.

“Due to the near certainty of recurrent outbreaks this coming fall and winter in some locales, state associations must be prepared for periodic school closures and the possibility of some teams having to isolate for two to three weeks while in season,” they said.

Scheduling contests that require less travel is also suggested due to the uncertainty of which phase will be attained at the beginning of a sports season or maintained during a season. The scheduling in this way will reduce time spent in busses and decrease the need for rescheduling contests as “opening up” may occur regionally.

NFHS makes it clear these guidelines and safety measures will become the new normal until there is some vaccine made available.

“Until a cure, vaccine or very effective treatment is readily available, or so-called ‘herd immunity’ is confidently reached, social distancing and other preventative measures such as face covering will be a ‘new normal’ if workouts, practices and contests are to continue.”

One of the main areas to address that are surely going to affect nearly every student athlete is the pre-participation physical evaluation (PPE). NFHS is aware of the concerns regarding access to primary care providers at this time and has given recommendations for states to consider regarding physicals for student athletes.

They ask them to follow the laws of the state and to recommend discussions with state health departments and state medical associations prior to making a final decision. NFHS recommends a one-year extension for any student who has a PPE that “expires” before or during the 2020-21 academic year.

They suggest making parents aware that extending the duration between PPE’s is a deviation from standard of care, but they believe that this change would permit the greatest overall health benefit.

Any student who did not have a PPE, such as incoming freshman and students who are first-time participants in athletics should still be required to have a PPE prior to participation. Parents should be notified now of this requirement so that they are able to get this accomplished in the coming months.

NFHS is also encouraging allowing schools to accept documented PPE’s from out-of-state transfer students.

The NFHS then gave detailed explanations of each phase. It was noted that the phases are based upon the White House document released in April. They advise to consult state and local health department to review if they are using a similar approach or how the phases in the document correspond to the states.

Phases

The phases are guidelines for beginning to gather as a group or team and what needs to take place to safely do so. While the stages are recommendations, they could be moved forward or stalled depending on where each individual state is at when the time comes to begin practices and contests.

Each phase has pre-workout screening guidelines, limitations on gatherings guidelines, facilities cleaning, physical activity and athletic equipment guidelines.

In the first two phases, the pre-workout screenings are identical. Each coach and student must be screened for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 prior to any workout. Each screening will include a temperature check. The responses to the check must be logged and stored so there is a record of everyone present in case someone was to develop COVID-19.

Any person with positive symptoms will not be allowed to take part in any activities. Any vulnerable individuals should not oversee or participate in any workouts during phase one or two.

Limitations on gatherings in phase one limit no more than 10 individuals inside or outside. Locker rooms will not be utilized and all students should report to workouts in proper attire and return home to shower after the workout.

All workouts should be conducted in pods of no more than five-10 people and the same five-10 should continue working out together. This ensures more limited exposure in the case that an individual were to develop an infection.

There also must be a minimum of 6 feet between individuals at all times. Proper facilities cleaning should take place prior to, during and after all workouts. This will be done in all three phases. Washing of hands, cleaning of equipment and the wiping down of all surfaces will be done frequently.

In phase one, there will be no shared equipment. Individual drills are permissible but any equipment used must be wiped down before the next person uses it. For example, an individual player can shoot a basketball but a team cannot practice or use a single ball in phase one.

In phase two no more than 10 people are allowed inside at a time, but up to 50 can gather outside. Locker rooms may be used in phase two as long as there is 6 feet of distance between individuals inside of the locker room. Pod workouts of 5-10 athletes are still recommended.

Lower-risk sports practices and competitions may resume in this phase. Those are considered to be sports that can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment. Sports listed in the lower-risk category are individual running events, throwing events such as javelin, shot put and discuss, individual swimming, golf, weightlifting, sideline cheer and cross country (with staggered start times).

Moderate risk sports are defined as those that involve close, sustained contact but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants. Those sports in the moderate risk category include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, swimming relays, pole vault, high jump, long jump and seven-on-seven football.

Volleyball, softball, baseball, tennis, pole vault, high jump and long jump could be considered low risk with appropriate cleaning of equipment and use of masks.

High-risk sports are considered sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants. Those sports are wrestling, competitive cheer, dance and football.

In phase three the pre-workout/contest screening says that any person who has had a fever or cold symptoms in the previous 24 hours should not be allowed to take part in workouts and should contact his or her primary care physician. A record should still be kept of everyone present and vulnerable people can resume public interaction, but practice physical distancing.

Gathering of 50 individuals or more is allowed indoors and outdoors. When not participating in practices or contests a distance of three to 6 feet is recommended between each individual. Moderate risk sports are allowed to begin practice and competitions. Modified practices may begin for higher risk sports. NFHS recommends states to reassess epidemiology data and experiences in other states and other levels of competition to determine when higher risk sports may resume

Social distancing will need to be maintained on sidelines/benches during contests and events.

When it comes to who will be allowed at events, the guidelines have three tiers. The first tier is the essential. Those include players, coaches, officials, event staff, medical staff and security. The second tier is preferred. Media is listed in the second tier. The third tier is non-essential. Spectators and vendors are in this tier. Only tier one and tier two personnel will be allowed to attend events until state/local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.

The NFHS is still meeting with numerous organizations to discuss consensus guidelines for fall sports practices and determining a return to physical activity. They will release that information once it is finalized.

There is a lot of information that the NFHS released and it will take time for each state to go through and find how much of the guidelines will need to be set in place to fit their needs. The good news is that the VHSL has over a month to go over the guidelines and watch how the reopening of the state progresses and have discussions with all of the officials involved before their meeting to discuss fall sports.

Whether there is a firm decision to be made by the VHSL in their June meeting regarding high school athletics is still up in the air, but the NFHS guidelines show that there is hope for sports to start soon, and while the “new normal” will take some time to get used to, bringing sports back is a big step in getting back to normal for many people.

Johnathan Kirland is a sports writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact him jkirkland@gazettevirginian.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnathanK_GV