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States charting HS sports restart

  • Members of the Hartford cross-country team Bethany Davis, left, Clementine Phillip, and Rylee Burnham, start their race during the VPA State Cross-Country Championship in Thetford, Vt., on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover High golfer Jack Meehan tees off on the fourth hole at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown, N.H., during the NHIAA division I golf tournament Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Meehan shot a 73 for third place. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2020 8:36:04 PM
Modified: 5/30/2020 8:38:59 PM

WEST LEBANON — Golf and cross country have a better chance of getting their fall seasons going than football, soccer, volleyball or field hockey, but a new set of guidelines from high school sports’ national governing body at least is offering a framework for a return to competition.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, through its sports medicine advisory committee, recently sent a document to its 51 state members suggesting a road map for restarting high school sports this fall. It follows a three-phase plan that takes contact, equipment usage, health monitoring, social distancing and other elements in mind when determining which sports can start when and how they’ll have to operate. It also posits the possibility of returning to practices and games even if schools remain closed to in-person learning while acknowledging such decisions will be different from state to state.

Jeffrey Collins, executive director of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, welcomed the document, calling it a good first step toward an indeterminate future. The NFHS held a webinar for members to get a first look at guidelines on May 18 before publicly releasing its plan a day later.

“It’s a really good start,” Collins said in a phone interview. “They’re looking at ways in which we hope to mitigate some of the risks of coming together and start playing sports. ... We’ll have the opportunity to discuss them and see how they look for our state and what’s going on.”

Both the NHIAA and the Vermont Principals Association are beginning the discussion process for fall sports, if they are to come about. The NFHS document isn’t a hard-and-fast framework but rather a suggestion of procedures once states get approval from their governments, health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to welcome high school athletes back.

Both Collins and VPA executive director Bob Johnson cautioned that sports won’t resume without their respective states restarting in-person classroom instruction. Both Vermont and New Hampshire went to remote learning in March once the scope of the coronavirus pandemic became evident, and both ultimately cut short winter playoffs and canceled spring sports as a result.

“The bottom line, and I was in on the webinar (last) week, is nobody still knows,” Johnson said. “We can make all the plans we want, but nobody has any idea of what it will look like in a month to eight weeks. We’re going along on the assumption that we won’t make a decision until the end of June. I’m pretty convinced it will have to be different in terms of how we approach some of our sports.”

Phased approach

The full document, titled “Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities,” can be found at the NFHS website, www.nfhs.org.

The plan breaks restarts into three phases. It doesn’t provide benchmarks for each phase, instead leaving state associations to work with government authorities on setting standards.

Preworkout screenings, both through questions and temperature checks, for COVID-19 symptoms would be required of athletes and coaches in the first two phases. People in vulnerable categories wouldn’t oversee or take part in practices.

The NFHS recommends limits of 10 people indoors or outdoors in Phase 1, increasing to 50 for outdoor workouts only in Phase 2. Locker rooms would not be open initially and athletes would be asked to show up in proper gear, returning home to shower and wash clothes and towels. Phase 2 permits locker room use but with 6 feet of social distancing maintained.

The NFHS also divides sports into low-, moderate- and high-risk categories based on infection risk by sport, suggesting that some fall activities could resume competition sooner than others, again depending on local regulations. Low-risk sports such as golf and cross country (using staggered start times) could begin competition at Phase 2. High-risk activities like football will have to “re-assess epidemiology data and experience in other states” once in Phase 3 before deciding to play games, the document noted.

Additionally, the NFHS doesn’t recommend allowing spectators to attend events “until state/local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.”

“It’s almost a bit overwhelming when you really step back and think,” Rivendell Academy athletic director Ross Convertino said last week. “My perspective is it’s also clear that every little detail (is there): cleaning equipment, taking temperatures, all that sort of thing.

“We’ve always been a one-man show; the coach handles everything or I handle everything. It’s quite a bit. It would take a team of people to get this going off and get small groups of 10 to start.”

Patience required

Collins and Johnson both have sports medicine committees that have begun digesting the NFHS blueprint. They will make the first recommendations for the associations’ activities standards committees to consider.

The NFHS document doesn’t suggest moving sports seasons around to give high-risk activities more time to achieve compliance. However, Johnson said the VPA may contemplate that scenario as it does its research.

“It’s a little complicated,” he said, “but that option’s there, too.”

The recommendations have left Stevens High athletic director Doug Beaupre with a lot of questions. They’re exacerbated by the fact that the states’ coronavirus scenarios change on a daily basis.

“I know the NHIAA is kind of waiting on the governor, and the governor is waiting on the CDC, but I’ve already been talking with some superintendents that are going to start (the fall) with remote learning,” Beaupre said on Friday. “Some, like up in the northern regions where they haven’t been affected as much — there aren’t many cases up there — they might even start up with regular school. Who knows?”

The Upper Valley’s two interstate school districts will also have the issue of possibly having to adhere to two different sets of guidelines. Hanover High’s Dresden district and Rivendell both stretch across the Vermont-New Hampshire border.

“The phases make sense to me,” Convertino said. “It’s nice that we’re putting things in place to give it a go. We take things day-by-day at this point.

“Early on, when things were shutting down, New Hampshire put in stricter rules than Vermont. The VPA was holding out hope to have sports at the last second, when New Hampshire had protocols where you couldn’t do things. ... It’s definitely unique for us, trying to stay on top of the discrepancies between the two states and navigate that.”

In a Wednesday letter on the NFHS website, executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff said patience will be required as states plan their restarts.

“The urge to return to normal is understandable, but the path back to where we were three months ago will take time,” Niehoff wrote, “and that ‘time’ will not happen at the expense of the safety and well-being of everyone involved in high school sports.”

If he has a plan to follow, Beaupre said, he is confident he can get Stevens athletics going.

“It’ll be doable, if we can play sports,” he said. “If we’re going to play sports, we’ll get it done one way or the other.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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