The morning after the CIAC voted to go ahead with a full fall sports plan, Connecticut’s Department of Public Health told the organization it was recommending moving higher risk sports like football and girls volleyball to the spring as the state began returning students to school.
That recommendation wasn’t received, however, until after the CIAC’s decision continue its plans to conduct a fall season in 2020.
DPH’s advice, released in a letter written by acting commissioner Deidre S. Gifford Thursday morning, says state schools should “focus on re-starting academics first, allowing schools and students to acclimate to social distancing and mask-wearing requirements that are critical to successful reopening … followed shortly thereafter by the introduction of lower-risk sports.”
The DPH recommended the CIAC postpone all interscholastic activities — including conditioning and practices for fall sports — “until at least two weeks after the reopening of in-person instruction in schools.”
According to the letter, CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini spoke with DPH staff on Sunday, Monday, and finally on Wednesday, when he requested a written recommendation from the DPH ahead of the CIAC’s Board of Control vote.
Lungarini sent an email to DPH epidemiologist Tom St. Louis at 1:49 a.m. Wednesday to ask specifically about the risks involved in holding a football season.
“As CIAC considers the prospects of fall football, can DPH give us its position on that sport at this time? Based on CT’s COVID health metrics, does the science suggest that it is not safe to play a “high risk” (CIAC and NFHS classification) sport, specifically football, at the present time or in the fall?” the email said. “Thank you for running this by the appropriate people at DPH and providing any written position that CIAC can refer to in our consideration of a football opportunity.”
The CIAC Board of Control, however, voted to push ahead with the planned fall sports season in a 17-0 decision by voting members, contradicting a 9-1 vote by the football committee recommending a delay to spring.
The DPH’s letter threw more uncertainty onto a fall sports plan that seemed definite just hours before. Though it remained uncertain Thursday afternoon whether the state’s recommendation would force it to reverse course again, Lungarini and the CIAC have maintained the whole plan could change at a moment’s notice.
Lungarini responded Thursday afternoon by saying the CIAC’s Board of Control officers and medical consultants would begin reviewing the DPH’s recommendations Thursday night. “A review by the full board is necessary before any changes can be made to the approved plan.”
Under the CIAC’s approved plan, football is set to begin practicing in cohorts on Monday and all other sports, including volleyball, are set to begin the following week. Unless the CIAC reverses course, those plans remain in place.
“As we’ve said throughout the meetings we’ve had, this process is fluid and can change hour-to-hour and day-to-day,” Lungarini said. “Our conversations with DPH have been ongoing since we put this fall plan together on July 30. Many of their members were involved in the discussions.
“Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out to get (the DPH’s) official position on Wednesday. But I commend the work they’re doing. Their position is very detailed and we greatly appreciate it and we will review it. Our position now is, we have information today that’s different than yesterday. That’s OK. We have to be fluid. We will consider it and make any appropriate changes.”
Lungarini did not provide a timeline for the CIAC to review and respond to the DPH’s recommendations, however.
“We have to remember that all of our board members are also high school administrators,” he said. “They have things going on besides sports and when you have a meeting scheduled you have to remember how valuable those administrators’ times are. That’s why we felt it was appropriate to hold (Wednesday’s meeting) as scheduled.”
The new information under consideration includes the DPH’s recommendation that the CIAC postpone sports deemed “higher risk” by the National Federation of High School Associations’ Sports Medicine Advisory committee.
“In Connecticut, this includes football,” the letter, saying that football is more conducive to spreading the coronavirus through infectious respiratory droplets. Volleyball, it said, was at a “moderate risk” due to its being played indoors and involves “significant physical exertion and forceful communication” between teammates.
In an interview Wednesday, Lungarini said he didn’t think it was fair to single out football as a higher risk than the the contact received in hockey or basketball, which he said had been played with few reported coronavirus issues throughout the summer. Lungarini said contract tracers deemed the few cases didn’t come from playing contact sports.
“While all those sports have happened, (Connecticut’s COVID-19) numbers continue to decline,” he said. “Have high risk sports been successful (this summer)? The answer to that is, yes.
“Things can change tomorrow. Right now, it’s safe to play.”
Lungarini reiterated Thursday that the board’s decision was based on information available to it at the time. It included discussions with the Connecticut Medical Society’s Sports Medicine Committee and the CIAC’s medical advisory groups, as well as the recommendations from each of the CIAC’s sports committees.
Ultimately, each school district could decide to opt out of playing sports. Superintendents have the final say in their respective districts. Fran Rabinowicz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, told Hearst Connecticut Media on Wednesday there has not been consensus among school districts and superintendents about moving the fall sports season.
“Some were for it. Some were not,” she said.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s office on Thursday declined to specifically address the discrepancy between the DPH’s recommendation and CIAC’s decision.
Lamont spokesman Max Reiss did issue a statement: “Gov. Lamont has led Connecticut to low infection rates and low positivity rates by allowing the best available public health information and experts to be his guide, and that approach will continue, as it is the best path forward to keep all of our residents safe.”
Earlier Thursday, Connecticut House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin/Southington) and Deputy Minority Leader Vincent Candelora (R-North Branford) issued a joint statement saying they both agreed with the CIAC’s decision to go forward with the fall season.
Aresimowicz is the head football coach at Berlin and Candelora the owner of the Connecticut Sportsplex facility in North Branford.
“We all acknowledge this remains a fluid situation that demands flexibility, yet with the strict safety protocols that are being put in place, combined with the best health statistics and metrics of any state in the country,” Aresimowicz said. “Connecticut is a place where this can work safely if we all follow the guidelines.”
Candelora said his sports complex has seen no outbreaks since reopening June 20. “Connecticut needs to move ahead with a sensible, but robust, high school sports program when our kids go back to school in September,” Candelora said.
“As schools begin welcoming students back into their buildings, communities will be able to assess the proper implantation of the mitigation strategies outlined in the State Department of Education’s re-opening guidance and put into place any necessary corrective actions,” the DPH letter said.
“It makes sense from a public health perspective to allow this process to become well-established before introducing sports.”
–With additional reporting from Hearst Connecticut Media staff