It’s understandable that the National Federation of State High School Associations want not only a return to schools nationwide this fall, but a return to the athletic fields as well.
For Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the NFHS’ executive director, it’s vital to the mental health and well-being of the student-athletes. In an article dated July 15th on the NFHS website, Niehoff quoted a poll conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine indicating “68 percent of the state’s student-athletes reported symptoms of depression by May” and 65 percent from Wisconsin reported “reported anxiety symptoms due to COVID-19 closures.”
Niehoff, the former executive director for the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, brought up the story on a Monday conference call with media nationwide to provide an update of how the progression of a return to interscholastic competition is going.
“States (associations) across the country want kids to be back, want kids to be participating in activities for a number of reasons,” said Niehoff, the first woman to serve in her current NFHS capacity. “I taught health and wellness. The most important thing is how kids are doing and developing. The key to kids are relationships, developing their identity, their capacity for tolerating challenges and developing leadership skills.”
State associations are in various different phases of a return. Some are going on as scheduled this fall, some have already pushed back the start of fall practice and the start of the season while others have pushed football back to 2021. Some are using the lower-risk spring sports during the fall (for those who don’t play baseball, softball, or golf in the fall).
Connecticut is expected to announce its fall plans by no later than Aug. 3.
“I’m greatly concerned about cancellations we are already seeing,” Niehoff said. “State associations are very concerned.”
With the state associations having canceled some of the winter sports championships and the entire spring season, Niehoff said that it could be “100 to 150,000 to in excess of 2 million of loss in state revenue” if there are no football playoffs. “Some of them will be in pretty dire states financially. … If there are no fall championships, no fall sports for our schools and districts, the revenue impacts will go far beyond one calendar year.”
Niehoff is on weekly zoom calls with the state’s executive directors. She said “there is an angst and anxiety, not about finances. Nobody yet has talked about money. Everyone is talking repeatedly about how to be creative to getting kids back, bring kids back statewide, what that looks like, how kids proceed through a season to a potential championship.”
Glenn Lungarini succeeded Niehoff as CIAC executive director. He previously served on the CIAC Board of Control and is on those weekly calls.
“Karissa models being steady, she models gathering data, looking at the evidence in front of you to make informed decisions and she models the human element part of things as well,” Lungarini said.
Lungarini says Niehoff has constantly been available to him and other executive directors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She is kid-centered and a true leader in that manner,” Lungarini said.
Niehoff said she not only would like to see athletics return, but also to see spectators in some capacity.
“We support an effort to bring kids back and finding a way to allow fans to come back, bringing folks back into the arenas and venues so they can enjoy the events as well,” Niehoff said.
If that is not an option in Connecticut, Niehoff noted that the NFHS is making available two free Pixellot cameras to every single member school so fans can watch the games on the NFHS website (normally for a subscription rate). A number of state schools already have them installed both outdoors and indoors.
Niehoff has watched Iowa conduct its regular seasons with teams having to cancel due to positive COVID-19 cases. Despite the outbreaks, both sports have made it to postseason play.
How many state associations have that opportunity in the fall remains to be seen.