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Under nationally issued guidelines, high school sports could look very different upon return

A helmet lies on the ground while members

A helmet lies on the ground while members of the Floral Park football team practice on August 19, 2015 Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

When Long Island first glimpses the return of high school sports from its coronavirus-imposed stoppage, it could have a very different look. Basketball practices may not allow passing. Tennis practices may not allow players to hit together. Volleyball practices may not allow play at the net.

The National Federation of State High School Associations on Tuesday put out a 16-page document entitled “Guidance for State Associations to Consider in Re-opening High School Athletics and Other Activities,” outlining protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It advises that high school sports return in three phases. In the first, there are highly modified practices in lower- and moderate-risk sports. Only in the third phase do higher-risk sports like football, wrestling and competitive cheerleading begin competition. Now common practices like social distancing, disinfecting equipment and donning face coverings wherever possible are central in each phase.

"We don’t know the extent of the impact the virus will have or how it will affect school openings — right now all we have is speculation — but I am excited to see guidance out now,” said NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas, who also serves as president of the state Federation and was on the NFHS’ Sports Medicine Advisory Committee that drafted the guidance. “We are on the cusp of assembling our own guidance for our schools and national direction to the states is good. We could use a lot of what’s in [it] but it’s a great template for us in terms of the questions we need to ask.”

“Governor [Andrew M.] Cuomo will decide what happens for public schools and therefore sports, but these guidelines could be our bible when it’s time,” said Tom Combs, the executive director for Section XI that governs high school athletics in Suffolk.

On Long Island and across the state many routes for the return of high school sports are being considered — among them are pushing the season back a month, canceling the fall entirely and playing spring sports in the fall and fall sports in the spring — and Combs said “extraordinary times may require extraordinary measures, but it’s entirely too soon to decide anything because so much can change so fast.”

Zayas preached everyone’s patience with decisions “though I know that’s the hardest part,” but said he is “planning on football as scheduled, for Aug. 24, though I know it will look different.”

The NFHS guidance urges states to consider several big-picture matters like whether to hold championship tournaments, how to handle potential state “hot spots” and what measures will be taken for “the near certainty of recurrent outbreaks” and the in-season disruption of seasons due to school closing or team isolation.

Notable in Phase 1 are practices without contact or sharing equipment or towels, limiting gatherings for weight training or drills to groups of five to 10 and closure of all locker rooms. Coaches, athletes and officials considered “vulnerable” because of age or underlying health concerns would be restricted from participating until the third phase.

In Phase 2, lower-risk sports would be allowed to begin competition with all team personnel required to socially distance on the sidelines, benches and in locker rooms. Golf, track, swimming, sideline cheering and cross country with staggered starts are deemed lower-risk; volleyball, tennis, gymnastics, softball and baseball could also fall into that category with constant disinfecting of equipment (volleyballs, bats and helmets and gymnastics apparatus) after each use.

In Phase 3, gatherings are increased to up to 50; moderate-risk sports like basketball, soccer, field hockey, girls lacrosse and track and field may begin competition with three to six feet of distancing when not participating; and higher-risk sports (including boys lacrosse) can begin practices. Locker room use is permitted with social distancing measures observed and participants in the higher-risk sports would shower immediately afterward.

The NFHS guidance insists on social distancing during travel, which could mean multiple vehicles to transport a team, and this is only one matter of availability and added costs in face of reduced state aid to schools. Others include purchase of disinfectants, personnel to clean equipment during competition and more drivers and security, which Zayas said “may be logistically difficult.”

Decisions about participation by those classified as “vulnerable” could be difficult. “It’s not just age but health, and we could be talking about a number of coaches, officials and drivers,” Zayas said. “We have to address a whole gamut of situations we could face.”

RISKY BUSINESS

The NFHS guidance issued Tuesday classifies sports as lower-, moderate- and higher-risk. Below are the reasoning for the classification and the sports in each category.

HIGHER RISK

Description: Sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.

In this category: Boys Lacrosse, Competitive Cheerleading, Dance, Football and Wrestling,

MODERATE RISK

Description: Sports that involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants OR intermittent close contact OR group sports OR sports that use equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants.

In this category: Baseball*, Basketball, Field Events (other than throwing)and Relays in Track*, Field Hockey, Gymnastics*, Ice Hockey, Soccer, Softball*, Tennis*, Volleyball* and Water Polo.

* Could potentially be considered “Lower Risk” with appropriate cleaning of equipment and use of masks by participants

LOWER RISK

Description: Sports that can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors.

In this category: Cross Country, Golf, Individual Running and Throwing Events in Track, Sideline Cheerleading, Skiing and Swimming,

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