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NFHS Offers Guidelines for Return of High School Sports

As the current school year comes to a close, attention has already begun to shift towards the fall, and whether high school sports can safely return across the country.

On May 15, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) released the “Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities” in an effort to advance that conversation and provide a framework for states to resume high school sports. The NFHS’ Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) produced the 16-page reports stating that “it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the nation to return to physical activity and athletic competition.”

While the decision to resume athletic activities ultimately resides with the schools, the NFHS report provides a starting point for state organizations to work from, while consulting local health department guidelines.

“I think our leadership and our schools are needing help and guidance about how they are going to arrive at their decisions,” said CIF Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod. “That’s where these recommendations are really, really important to that. And the schools are asking us for our thoughts and opinions about it, but none of us are health professionals. Therefore, having to make these really important decisions where health and safety have to be our primary concern, these are really helpful because they do give schools and leadership recommendations that they can follow.”

While the NFHS guidelines can serve as a conversation starter, each state will need to craft its own state-specific recommendations for sports to resume, with guidance from their athletic training councils and local health officials. Wigod said that he’s recently spoken with CIF State Executive Director Ron Nocetti about the state’s response to the NFHS guidelines.

“He wants our sports medicine advisory committee to craft recommendations that might be more germane to the state of California,” Wigod explained. “They might be identical, or there might be provisions or recommendations that are more appropriate for California. So I think there’s going to be an effort made by our sports medicine advisory committee to also provide guidance to different schools and school districts who are facing decisions on when and how they’re going to open.”

The report offers some preliminary points of emphasis regarding face coverings and social distancing to limit spread and exposure to COVID-19, but also offers a sobering warning for the risks that come with resuming athletic activity.

“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,” the report states.

The guidelines go on to present a three-phase plan for the resumption of high school sports, with each phase offering detailed protocols for pre-workout screenings athletes and coaches, along with guidelines for size of gatherings, use of locker rooms and athletic equipment, and the permissible interaction between athletes during practices or games.

In the first phase, which is the most restrictive, it is recommended that every player and coach undergo pre-workout symptom screenings, including a temperature check, before being allowed to participate. Furthermore, gatherings should be limited to no more than 10 individuals and locker rooms shall remain closed. In order to limit widespread exposure among teams, it is recommended that workouts be conducted in “pods” of 5-10 students working out together.

The restrictions in Phase 1 become most prohibitive when it comes to the use of athletic equipment. The guidelines call for no shared equipment among athletes unless it is cleaned before being used by another player. Examples in the report specifically rule out passing of a ball from one player to another, making team participation in practice nearly impossible at this stage of re-opening.

“A football player should not participate in team drills with a single ball that will be handed off or passed to other teammates,” the report states. “Contact with other players is not allowed, and there should be no sharing of tackling dummies/donuts/sleds.”

Once Phase 2 is reached, “lower risk” sports will be able to resume more normal practice procedures and begin competition. Those lower risk sports are defined in the report as ones that allow for social distancing and don’t require shared use of equipment. Those sports include individual running events, throwing events like javelin and shot put, individual swimming, golf, cross country (with staggered starts) and others.

How different will high school sports look once they return? Athletes in sports like volleyball could be required to play with masks on.

Interestingly, some sports deemed to be “moderate risk” sports such as volleyball, baseball and tennis, are suggested as potential low risk sports in the guidelines. In order to fall into the lower risk category, these sports must incorporate sufficient cleaning of equipment and the use of face coverings from participants. The report also classifies spectators as “non-essential” at sporting events, and recommends that fans should not be permitted at events “until state/local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.”

While the guidelines help establish a groundwork, there are still several questions to answer over the coming months. That will require cooperation between several different organizations to form a specific plan that keeps everyone safe.

“I think the NFHS document is very thorough and it goes step-by-step, but it’s really up to the health department as far as what we’re going to be able to do,” said Moore League secretary Lisa Ulmer. “I think our district is communicating well with the public health department, but they’ve got to start talking about athletics, too. Don’t just say ‘no sports’ because every sport is different. The way they’re gradually re-opening the state, they can also do that with sports.”

Ulmer mentioned the possibility that some of those lower risk sports could start on time in the fall, but that is far from guaranteed. She specifically mentioned the possibility of golf, tennis and cross-country starting on time, if social distancing is maintained and it falls within health department guidelines at the time.

According to Wigod, all options are on the table regarding a safe return to sports. Even if that requires moving lower risk sports to earlier in the school year, or delaying the start of the fall sports season, he remains dedicated to seeing high school athletics making a safe return in the 2020-21 school year.

“Our responsibility is to make sure that everything is being considered with health and safety first,” Wigod said. “We’re completely focused on that right now. If there’s one thing I want people to understand it’s that no idea is being dismissed. We’re trying to look at it in as many ways as we can to ultimately get to a place where we’re able to come back with confidence restored.”

Tyler Hendrickson
Tyler Hendrickson was born and raised in Long Beach, and started covering sports in his hometown in 2010. After five years as a sportswriter, Tyler joined the athletic department at Long Beach State University in 2015. He spent more than four years in the athletic communications department, working primarily with the Dirtbags baseball program. Tyler also co-authored of The History of Long Beach Poly: Scholars & Champions.