The National Federation of State High School Associations – the body that governs public school sports in the U.S., through 51 separate state organizations – has released guidelines for reopening practices and games during the pandemic. There are three phases, with dozens of sports divided into three categories.
At lowest risk are sports like swimming, golf and cheer. Wrestling, football and boys lacrosse are at highest risk. Soccer joins most sports in the “moderate risk” category.
The first phase includes temperature checks before workouts; no more than 10 people together at one time, with “pods” of the same athletes always training together; no locker rooms, and 6-foot distances at all times. Each player would train with his or her own soccer ball. All equipment – including balls – should be cleaned after each use.
The second phase involves temperature checks and allows up to 50 people for workouts, with “socially distant” locker room use. The same “pod” concept of 5-10 athletes always working out together would continue; so would 6-foot distances between every participant.
Competition would begin in Phase 3. There could be 50 or more people, with a 3-foot distance when not competing.
Masks for coaches and officials are suggested for all three phases, as well as for athletes in Phase 3 when sitting on the bench, and in locker and training rooms.
The NFHS suggests quarantining an entire team, if one player tests positive for COVID-19. It also recommends adjusting game schedules to decrease time spent traveling. “Multiple buses/vans and/or parental/guardian transportation will likely be needed” if state or local health departments mandate social distancing on buses.
The national association warns, “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.” States should develop policies for practices and games in those cases, including the “cancellation or premature ending to post-season events/competitions.”
The NFHS also groups people into tiers, to determine who will be allowed once games resume. Tier 1 includes “essential” personnel: athletes, coaches, officials, medical and event staff, security. The media is “preferred” in Tier 2, while spectators and vendors are deemed “non-essential,” and relegated to Tier 3. The NFHS advises that only Tier 1 and 2 members attend matches until state or local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.
Finally, the federation says, hand sanitizer should be widely available at contests and practices. There should be no pre- and post-game handshakes, high fives or fist bumps. And officials may choose to use an “artificial noisemaker” in place of a whistle.
The NFHS’s 15-page document is a “guideline.” Each state association may choose to implement all, some or none of the recommendations. As coaches and athletic directors pepper their organizations with questions, state leaders respond that no decisions have yet been made. “We have to emphasize that the document states these are guidelines, and not intended to be the rulebook for what we do in North Carolina,” that state high school association’s assistant commissioner said. Boys play a fall season there; girls play in spring.
“I think it’s great guidance,” said Florida High School Athletic Association executive director George Tomyn. “I would not say that this is exactly what we’re going to do. It’s certainly good information for us to consider going forward.”
In fact, he added, “The NFHS has a healthy respect for the differences between states. And the reality for us is that Florida itself is so diverse. We have different situations in different regions within our state. We respect and understand that some districts are going to be able to move forward at different times. We must consider that.” Soccer is a winter sport in the Sunshine State.
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference said they would “not put out our plan for fall sports until we have more complete data and information from the state, establishing clear guidelines for a return to school.”
High school soccer coaches are used to planning ahead. Today, more than two months into the coronavirus crisis, all they can do is wonder about tentative plans for an uncertain future.
Coming soon -- Part 2: Coaches' response to NFHS guidelines and realistic is it?Photos: Staples (Westport, Conn.) H.S./Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif) by Thomas Daniel