The week started with a no for high school football players, shifted to a yes for all athletes two days later, and concluded with a definite maybe on Friday.
The roller coaster ride only added to the uncertainty ahead. But even with fall sports presently on hold while the CIAC’s Board of Control awaits a meeting with the Connecticut Department of Health to discuss its recommendations for interscholastic athletics, one thing is certain: athletic directors and high school administrators are facing numerous new logistical challenges for the fall sports season in the year of COVID-19.
“There are a few things that athletic directors are going through right now,” Hamden athletic director Tom Dyer said. “It has been a very difficult time, I would say 99% of athletic directors have been on the edge of their seats all summer. Safety is our No. 1 concern for student athletes right now.”
“What I see is an attempt to put a reasonable schedule together,” Danbury AD Chip Salvestrini said, “where our kids can go out and compete as teammates and classmates, against their rivals, have fun and be safe. At the end of the day, the goal is to give the kids an opportunity to play together.”
Many conversations with a coach or athletic director this season begin and end with safety.
According to several ADs, making sure high school-age kids are conscious about social distancing, mask-wearing when appropriate, and other COVID protocols has added an extra layer to educating.
“The social distancing aspect of any event is really important,” New Canaan AD Jay Egan said. “Large numbers of athletes in any one place is going to be problematic.”
Even a sport such as cross country, designated as low-risk by the National Federation of State High School Associations, poses its own logistical challenges, according to Egan. New Canaan’s Waveny Park features one of the top courses in Connecticut, and annually hosts the FCIAC championship races.
“The challenge for cross country is going to be how many athletes can you bring to a meet,” Egan said. “You can’t have large clusters of high school students interacting with each other. So being mindful of how you’re going to social distance in those types of events is a big part of the conversation.”
With social distancing in mind, “cohorts” has become common sports jargon this summer. The CIAC’s guidelines, prior to Friday’s decision, limited the cohorts, or groups, to 15 of fewer players until team practices begin on Sept. 11.
“We’re really challenging the mindset of the kids,” Cheshire AD Steve Trifone said. “We want them to stay as a cohort and as a team… (And wear) the mask when they are supposed to wear a mask.
“(It’s) kids maintaining that mindset that sports are going to be different for me.”
Screening or testing
Monitoring student-athletes on a day-to-day basis may prove to be the most daunting challenge, and while screening will be included in most, if not all schools’ plans this fall, implementing testing remains undetermined.
According to Egan, testing provides a snapshot of a moment in time, and without controlling every aspect of what a student-athlete is doing throughout the day, would not be as effective.
Screening, which is an analysis via questions of a student’s health and activities, also isn’t foolproof, Egan said, but it does teach athletes to be more aware of how they’re feeling on a daily basis.
The CIAC created a “COVID-19 Athletic Monitoring Form,” which is a checklist to help athletes self-screen for things such as fever or chills, shortness of breath, and loss of taste or smell.
“The important factor is that as an athlete, every day, I’m aware of how I feel,” Egan said. “Do I feel like I normally do, or do I have a sore throat or body aches. It’s creating self-awareness and self-responsibility with the athletes, which is really the only way this is ever going to go forward.”
VJ Sarullo, the AD at Jonathan Law, said whether or not Milford athletes would be tested for COVID has yet to be determined, but screening would be key.
If an athlete shows signs or symptoms, that information will go through the coach and athletic director, and then a health professional will be contacted, Sarullo said.
“We would make sure that (the athlete) wouldn’t return until it is safe to do so,” Sarullo said.
Dyer added that he’s been in constant contact with the Quinnipiac Valley Health Department throughout the summer.
“We are fortunate to have a great superintendent and administration that understand the value of athletics,” Sarullo said. “Any time questions or challenges come up, we are talking it out with other athletic directors and administrators about what would be best for the kids.”
Where are all the fans?
Part of the thrill of a Friday night football game or a showdown with a rival in any sport is the cheering of friends and fans in the stands.
Following the meeting of its Board of Control on Wednesday, the CIAC recommended that fans not be allowed at games and practices this fall, although that decision ultimately lies with each school district.
Several athletic directors have said they’d like to find a way to at least allow parents of student-athletes to watch their kids’ games, but that shouldn’t jeopardize the season.
Danbury is the state’s largest school based on the 2019-20 enrollment of 3,378 students, according to the CIAC website. The potential is there to draw large crowds, but Salvestrini said he’d like to have a limited amount of spectators attend games.
“We’re the No. 1 size school, so we have a lot of kids. I just can’t in good conscience shut out all spectators. Parents need the opportunity to be there and we have to create an environment where they can see their kids participate,” Salvestrini said.
Sarullo has said that no decision about fans has been made in the Milford school district, but that would not stand in the way of games being played.
“Let’s assume we have a fall sports experience,” Sarullo said. “The number one thing is to make sure it’s safe and healthy for everyone. Second is putting our student-athletes at the forefront. If the only way to have a fall sports experience is with no fans, then we won’t have fans.
“As we get closer to contests, then we will have some guidelines for our families.”
Costs of COVID
Some school districts have taken a financial hit due to the pandemic, and that’s trickled down to athletic departments, which are also facing the prospect of limited, if any, gate receipts this fall.
“We count on gate revenues — no fans, no gate,” said Trifone, who said Cheshire has cut back on equipment budgets, transportation costs, and sending coaches to clinics and sports banquets.
“Budgets are tight and we are monitoring that and making the coaches aware,” Trifone said. “All that little extra stuff we’ve done for the kids, we won’t have it.”
The CIAC’s word of the year is “fluid,” and that holds true for scheduling. Schools have been placed in regions, based on geography, and conferences are in the process of creating schedules based on those designations.
On Friday, the New Haven Department of Health pulled the plug on fall athletics by banning games and practices for high and moderate risk sports. Shortly thereafter, Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Michael J. Testani announced the postponement of the city’s football and volleyball seasons.
Those decisions will impact the schedule and more changes could follow, as the state’s Department of Health on Thursday recommended that the CIAC move football and volleyball to the spring season.
“The number two challenge (behind safety) right now is planning,” Dyer said. “Nobody has the information, it’s changed a few times like with New Haven’s health department… so that will affect scheduling if we do play.
“There is a whole heck of a lot that goes into scheduling. Getting officials, workers, and transportation and things like that. The scheduling piece is very daunting at this moment.”
Whatever shape the fall sports season eventually takes, Salvestrini said it still boils down to coaching and educating the student-athletes.
“When you’re coaching young people, you coach them to have a skill,” Salvestrini said. “This is essentially the same thing. You’re coaching them to do the right things, have a better environment and create a better safety zone for themselves.
“It really comes down to us doing the job to make it work for them.”
Pete Paguaga and Will Aldam contributed to this story.