On Tuesday, the Virginia High School League announced it was exploring plans for the reopening of fall athletics and activities for the upcoming school year.
The VHSL received some help with these plans Wednesday as the National Federation of State High School Association unveiled an outline for its 51-member state high school associations to consider during this process.
The 16-page document, developed by the NFHS Sports Medicine Committee of medical doctors, certified athletic trainers, high school coaches and officials and state organization association executives, outlined a three-phase process to try and assure safety amid concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We believe this guidance document will be a tremendous resource for our member state associations as they determine the timetable for re-opening sports and activities,” said NFHS executive director Karlissa Niehoff in the release. “The NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee utilized recommendations from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, as well as some return to play considerations by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, in formulating this guidance document for re-opening athletics and other activities in our nation’s schools.”
The document outlines a staged approach to reopening high school sports and other activities, similar to the phase openings encouraged by President Donald Trump and other political leaders last month. The committee encourage state organizations like the VHSL and VISAA to consult with state and local health departments for determining appropriate dates for implementing these plans.
“It is important to be clear that this is guidance for individual states to consider as they return to activities this fall,” Niehoff said. “States will utilize the guidance in this document as it best fits their state after consulting with local and state departments.
One of the key points of emphasis discussed is the use of face coverings by athletes, coaches, officials to decrease the potential exposure to respiratory droplets. The NFHS SMAC recommends wearing cloth face coverings. The committee also said that “medical grade” masks are not required for physical activity, but cloth face coverings can be worn through all three phases of the reopening process. Exceptions to this rule would be swimmers, distance runners and other high intensity aerobic activity.
Plastic shields covering the entire face or attached to a facemask in football will not be allowed during contests. Coaches, officials and other contest personnel may wear cloth face coverings at all times during the reopening phases and artificial noisemakers such as air horns or a timer system with an alarm can be used to signal in place of a traditional whistle.
Testing regimens, specific guidelines regarding mass gatherings and a response to a student or team member testing positive for COVID-19 are all under review and a ruling will come from the CDC, as well as state and local health departments.
The report warns that due to a “near certainty” of recurrent COVID-19 outbreaks this fall and winter, state associations must be prepared for periodic school closures and the possibility of some teams having to isolate for two to three weeks during the season.
The report recommends school associations develop contingency plans for competitions during temporary school closures, cancellation of contests during the regular season. In addition, it suggests the importance of establishing parameters for the cancellation or premature ending to postseason events and competitions.
The NFHS encourages teams to consider less travel, when possible. This would reduce time on buses or vans and decrease the need for rescheduling contests as “opening up” may occur regionally.
Under this plan, Phase I would include the screening of all coaches and students. The screening includes a temperature check. This helps monitor both athletes and coaches for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 prior to a workout. The results of those checks should be documented and any person with positive symptoms will not be allowed to take part in workouts and must contact a doctor for treatment. This is designed to help limit the spread of the virus.
It’s recommended to also follow social distancing guidelines. In terms of gatherings, there should be no more than 10 people at a time inside or outside, and there must be a minimum distance of six feet between individuals at all times. Locker rooms should not be utilized and students should report to workouts in gear and showers are prohibited on school facilities.
Workouts should be conducted in pods of no more than 10 students and the same group should always work out together. Even smaller groups can be used for weight lifting. Students should not share athletic equipment, including towels, clothing and shoes. Workout clothes or uniforms should be washed after every workout or game. Students are also encouraged to shower following workouts under the committee’s guidance.
Athletic equipment, including balls, should be cleaned after each use and prior to the next workout. Individual drills requiring athletic equipment are allowed, but equipment should be cleaned between each use.
For example, a basketball player can shoot with one ball, but a team shouldn’t use one ball touched by multiple players in a practice. The same concept applies to football, as one ball shouldn’t be touched by multiple players. Contact with other players is not allowed and there should be no sharing of tackling dummies, donuts or sleds.
Weight lifting that requires a spotter is discouraged, as it requires breaking social distancing protocols.
In terms of facilities, schools are encouraged to create and implement cleaning schedules. Hard surfaces must be wiped down and sanitized before and after team activities.
Under Phase 2, gatherings for outdoor workouts will be increased to 50 individuals, but no more than 10 for indoor events. Locker rooms can be used, but individuals must remain six feet apart at all times. Workouts should still be conducted in pods.
Lower risk sports, such as cross country, sideline cheer, golf, can hold practices and competitions.
For moderate risk sports like basketball, volleyball and soccer, practices may begin under Phase 2 with competitions starting under Phase 3.
For higher-risk sports like football, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer and wrestling, modified practices should start once schools reach Phase 3. League officials will then review the epidemiology data and experiences in other states and other levels of competition to determine when competition may resume.
VHSL executive director Dr. John W. “Billy” Haun announced Monday that the VHSL meets regularly with region superintendents, principals, athletic directors and the VHSL Sports Advisory Committee to discuss possible courses of action moving forward. Haun said the league is slated will meet with its Coach Advisory Committee of all fall sports to develop a reopening plan when the time is right.
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