CHESHIRE — This CIAC update on the fall season wasn’t a football team bursting through a banner onto its field on homecoming. This was more dancing along the sideline, hoping to stay in bounds.
CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said Thursday morning that conditioning for all sports continues to go ahead and teams will continue to work toward starting full practices Sept. 21, two weeks after most schools return to classes. But it’s all subject to change because of COVID-19 metrics and the approval of state and local officials.
“From the start of this, as we begin, we reminded everybody that our plan will be fluid,” Lungarini said. “It will change as the information changes, metrics change, and we will continue to monitor that information from our offices as well as speaking with our stakeholders and medical experts along the way.”
Lungarini said he expects further collaboration with the state Department of Public Health, which has recommended not playing full-contact football and indoor girls volleyball in the fall. The plan keeps all activity low-risk, in public-health terms, until mid-September, with teams practicing in non-contact small “cohorts” in the meantime.
“They’ve been very good conversations with DPH. There’s no animosity between CIAC and DPH. I don’t see us as being defiant from DPH. We’re actually abiding by their recommendations right now,” Lungarini said.
Here’s Dr. Diedre Gifford of the CT Dept. of Health, reiterating their stance has not changed on football and volleyball in light of CIAC’s decision to continue with its fall sports plan today.
She echoed comments from Lamont Cos Paul Mounds, whose mic was on the fritz. pic.twitter.com/OiPRsfu0rP
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) August 27, 2020
“What we’re just asking for is the benefit of time to work before we make decisions that we know are going to have a negative impact on kids. Let’s move in the direction of trying to give them as much as we can until the point that COVID tells us we can’t.”
If the state’s health metrics remain under certain thresholds, the CIAC hopes to add full-team, contact practices on Sept. 21 on the way to a proposed Oct. 1 start date for games. That provides time to assess how school openings affected the metrics.
The CIAC plans to monitor the data daily, with its first indicator being the seven-day average new cases per 100,000 population per day. An uptick in that figure beyond 10 or an upward change in other metrics would pull athletics back to small-cohort, non-contact workouts. An increase over 25 or an upward trend in those other metrics would suspend athletics altogether.
As of Wednesday, that seven-day average statewide was 3.1, with Fairfield ranking highest among the eight counties at 4.5.
At Gov. Ned Lamont’s daily press conference, acting DPH commissioner Deidre S. Gifford said the recommendations are not likely to change for sports at the risk level of football and volleyball.
“Those recommendations are based not only on those national guidelines, but they’re based on the nature of the sports themselves and the nature of the way the coronavirus is transmitted,” Gifford said. “As the governor has repeated frequently, we’re going to follow the science, and the science indicates that these sports are higher-risk than others.”
Lamont’s Chief of Staff Paul Mounds said the governor’s goal is to get students back into schools safely. He said the administration was “surprised” by the CIAC decision. He did not indicate further action to possibly stop the seasons, however.
In its talks with the DPH, the CIAC has argued that private sports organizations have been allowed to play during the summer without clear effects on the state’s metrics.
Lungarini conceded that if DPH changes its recommendations for those private organizations, it’d be “new information” for the CIAC. And if DPH maintains its recommendations for high school football and volleyball over the next month, some schools could be forced to not move forward with those sports as they’re usually played and practiced.
“I believe our public schools would be compelled to follow a recommendation that comes from DPH, but our private schools would really fall under those private-sector rules,” Lungarini said. “We have a recommendation for DPH for part of our membership that 11-vs.-11 football isn’t recommended, but then we have private-sector rules that say high-risk sports are permitted to play.
“Even within our member schools we have a contradiction of what kind of recommendations for them to follow. We’d like as much as we can to have conversations and close the gap between those inconsistencies and understandings from DPH.”
Some local school boards have already discussed athletics on their own; Region 13 opted Nonnewaug out of fall sports two weeks ago, and Bridgeport and New Haven have limited their participation. Shelton’s Board of Education on Wednesday let most sports go ahead with conditioning while reserving judgment on football and volleyball. Region 13, governing Coginchaug, expected to set a special meeting once the CIAC and DPH reached a consensus. A discussion about athletics was on Wilton’s Board of Education agenda Thursday night but didn’t include any action from the board.
“We’re going to stand by and support any decision that a superintendent and school district may decide is in the best interest of their kids,” Lungarini said.
“We said, when the time is right, we’re going to play again. That time being right may be different for people in various parts of the state. It might different by individual community. It might be different by individual people. A district might decide to play, but a parent or a kid may decide not to.”
Lungarini said that if volleyball and football are fall no-gos even under good metrics, then certainly most winter competition, moderate- and high-risk indoor sports, will pretty much have to follow. A winter uptick in COVID cases is expected, anyway.
“We believe our kids, our athletes and our schools deserve the value of time and deserve the opportunity to at least begin under low-risk activities, and then assess as we move forward,” Lungarini said.
DPH used the examples of 7-on-7, non-tackle football and outdoor volleyball as possible ways to mitigate risks for those sports. Lungarini said that, in football, the CIAC wants to play 11-on-11 if the metrics allow but will explore other possibilities as well to keep players engaged. He said outdoor volleyball doesn’t appear viable for several reasons, and that if club volleyball remained viable, many elite players would play there instead.
“(DPH has) offered some suggestions to consider that would moderate that level down to a lower risk,” Lungarini said.
“We continue to work with our committees to explore ways we can reduce (those sports) to those lower risk levels if we get to the point that the metrics don’t support it,” Lungarini said, “or we have further discussions with DPH that understand that the consistencies and the quantitative data that they’re looking at wouldn’t support that as well.”
Much of the logistics of a possible season remain to be determined. SCC commissioner Al Carbone said by text that there are still questions about which league schools will play which sports. Schedules will wait a little while.
“We may have to be even more creative and chance some of the regional alignments we proposed, based on what schools choose to do,” Carbone said. But he said the new plan is “good news for the student-athletes. They get to be part of the end result, and that is being safe and making good decisions.”
Lungarini said structured sports, among their coaches and peers, can help keep athletes safer than they would be on their own. And he urged everyone involved to grab onto the moment while it lasts.
“Don’t let your thoughts of what may or may not happen tomorrow diminish the experience that you’re having today,” Lungarini said. “Enjoy those moments with your coaches, with your peers, with your friends, playing the sport you love today. We’re going to provide you the best opportunity, if it is safe, to engage with the sports you love.”
This story has been updated, throughout at 5:15 p.m., with comment from Paul Mounds at 7 p.m. and with a note on Wilton’s Board of Education meeting at 9:20 p.m.
Staff writer Ken Dixon contributed to this report.