The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference has pushed back the start of the fall season to Sept. 24, as detailed in an 11-page fall sports plan report the organization released Friday afternoon.
With the later start date and the anticipation of a spike in coronavirus infections sometime in the fall, the current regular-season schedules will be reduced and redone to make them more regional, allowing teams closer to one another to play in order to reduce travel times — whether by public transportation or by parents — and potential spread of the virus.
The CIAC is recommending that teams play the 10 closest schools in proximity to “mitigate potential spread and maximize contact tracing capability,” according to the plan.
“We will bring league commissioners and league presidents together to establish geographic matchups and explore competitive balance in terms of school size,” said Glenn Lungarini, the CIAC’s executive director. “We will rely on the expertise of our league commissioners to help develop schedules that are both regional and good for kids.”
The football season will be no more than eight games and there will be no more than 14 games/meets for the other fall sports (boys and girls soccer, boys and girls cross country, field hockey and girls volleyball). There is a maximum of two games/meets per week, and one for football. That will include a “tournament experience” at season’s end.
The original start date for the fall season was Sept. 10. Under the revised play, full team practices and contact will now not begin until Sept. 11, and scrimmages not until Sept. 18. On Monday, all fall sports teams can increase to groups of 15 for conditioning practice.
Skill work cannot be introduced until Aug. 17 for football and Aug. 27 for the other remaining sports.
According to the first paragraph of the plan released Friday, the CIAC has consulted many different groups throughout this process, including the Connecticut State Medical Society Sports Medicine Committee, the Department of Public Health and the State Department of Education.
The second paragraph: “The CIAC emphasizes that this plan is fluid and in a perpetual state of evaluation.”
The message? The plan could change, probably several times, between now and the new start of the fall season.
“We have been very clear that our plan will continue to evaluate health metrics and data information as it becomes available surrounding COVID-19, its transmission and how that information relates to (high school) sports,” Lungarini said. “Everything that we have planned we feel provides a more safe sports experience and provides a responsible interscholastic experience for kids. Everything in our plan abides by what is currently taking place under the governor’s plan. It can change for youth sports or interscholastic athletics at any time.”
The plan was made public just a day after Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who is advising Gov. Ned Lamont, said he didn’t think high school football or any contact sports could be played this fall. Emanuel, the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said high school sports cannot be implemented in a “bubble,” which makes the fall season doubtful.
Still, the CIAC has moved ahead with its plan.
“I’m just really thankful in the face of everything that is going on that they have the courage to come out and try and implement this,” said Danbury High football coach Augustine Tieri. “Our state has done a very good job doing the things to get to this point.”
Both the newly formed CIAC Fall Committee and CIAC Board of Control approved the plan.
The tournament experience is still to be determined, but Lungarini said any team can participate and it will not be the traditional single-elimination format. That will be held Nov. 2-15 (Oct. 31-Nov. 8 for cross country).
“The tournament experience will be designed so we could honor kids in terms of a championship,” Lungarini said. “I don’t know if it will be a state championship, a league championship or a regional championship, but we will be looking to give kids some type of end-of-the-season experience to play towards. We will not have one team in the state play another on the opposite side of the state.”
COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and other health requirements will be conducted by the individual school district, in conjunction with each district’s department of health, Lungarini said.
“If a student tests positive, that person’s (local) department of health will need to be notified and he or she must follow the protocols as directed by the DPH,” Lungarini said. “We addressed the concern of what is the threshold for a team (for a breakout of COVID) where we may have to shut down. My understanding in that conversation was that the DPH is currently working with the State Department of Education on this topic and we will continue to consult with them to identify appropriate measures for athletics and insure they align with our school plans.”
But some requirements or recommendations may come at a cost.
“They’re talking about putting splash guards (on helmets),” said Platt football coach Jason Bruenn. “Are we going to hold a fundraiser to buy splash guards? Inequity always comes down to financing. … Communities that can’t afford it are going to struggle with it.”
The CIAC has also left it up to individual districts to set limits on spectators. The CIAC’s guidance is a referral to Gov. Lamont’s Phase 2 of the state’s re-opening plan — which is 50 percent capacity indoors, or 25 people, and approximately 100 outdoors. All must be social-distanced and wearing masks where applicable.
Lungarini noted how successful youth and high school-aged participation in sports has been since they were allowed to do so last month, and how low coronavirus numbers have been in Connecticut.
“The health metrics in Connecticut are arguably the best we can expect them to be while still managing a health pandemic,” Lungarini said. “Participation in sports under our CIAC model provides schools a better opportunity to control cohorts and provide athletic experiences that our students desperately need in a controlled environment.”
Lungarini had a similar response to Dr. Emanuel’s comments made at Gov. Lamont’s press briefing Thursday.
“In Connecticut, we have seen 7-on-7 passing leagues successfully participate, with additional passing leagues scheduled,” Lungarini said. “We have seen the successful participation of sports like soccer, lacrosse and basketball. Some would argue that basketball in person-to-person defense where athletes may be in closer contact throughout the game is worse than what occurs in football. In Connecticut, basketball has successfully been played since June 20.
“That being said, I am not an epidemiologist nor a medical doctor. Therefore, I will continue to rely on the expertise of our medical professionals and consultation with health experts to modify our plan as appropriate.”
Lungarini has said since May that he expected the season to start late due to schools needing to return to in-person learning first. If that doesn’t happen in September, and distance learning continues, then fall sports will not happen.
“At this point, we will have to be in some sort of in-person experience (for education),” Lungarini said. “If we reach the point where the health metrics are (at a point) where it will not be safe to be on campus for instruction, if that is the case, it would not be safe to be on campus for athletics.”
The CIAC Fall Sports Committee was formed in early July. It includes three members of the CSMS-Sports Medicine Committee. Also on the committee: 10 principals, two superintendents, one assistant principal, five members of both the Connecticut High School Coaches Association and the Connecticut Association of Athletic Directors, one league commissioner, two legislators (both with ties to high school sports), two athletic trainers and four CIAC staff members, including Lungarini.
The extensive plan the committee has put together includes details for the use of locker rooms, face masks and other safety precautions. There are also details for hygiene — including when and where to wear face masks.
The CIAC wants to limit the use of locker rooms wherever possible. Lungarini said girls volleyball teams will be asked to wear their uniforms to the game, and no discussions will be held in locker rooms. The same goes for halftime discussions for the outdoor sports teams — hold those outdoors.
Girls volleyball teams will also not switch sides during meets. Officials will be asked to come dressed to games.
The CIAC is also recommending each school or organization put together its own COVID-19 advisory committee to address local concerns.
Lungarini said there was some consideration given to swapping some lower-risk sports — like baseball, softball, golf and track and field — that were lost this past spring to be played in the fall.
“We didn’t want to take an entire season of kids who just lost their whole spring seasons and (put them in a position) where they will be impacted again,” Lungarini said. “We know at the very best the fall season is going to be shortened. Their best shot at playing a full season is in the spring.”