Syracuse, N.Y. — Although communities across the United States face a wide range of challenges as they try to return to high school sports amid the coronavirus pandemic, many issues overlap state borders.
Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, discussed many of them in a media call on Tuesday.
Here are some excepts:
Practice vs. games
Many sports are in a holding pattern, with practices allowed but games still prohibited. Niehoff was asked how long it’s fair to ask athletes to prepare without setting an end goal of games.
“We have to look at a few things. What has been the phase-in approach? Has there been a staging sort of process? In our guidance document we talk about moving from phase to phase, looking at a two-week kind of a staging,” she said. “If we see a comfortable span of time, without increase (of infection rates), without greater concern, probably moving to that next phase could be appropriate.
“As far as how long you wait (before games), you really have to take it on a case-by-case basis. You may be bumping into the next season if you’re waiting and waiting and waiting and you’re losing your competitive season. We hope that doesn’t happen.”
Niehoff addressed whether it’s feasible for states to require athletes get coronavirus vaccines before being allowed to compete, as well as the reporting procedure if an athlete tests positive.
“This is something we would really have to answer in collaboration with legal and medical expertise about what is required and certainly pay attention to state statutes, which may differ from state to state,” she said. “We would hope that our students would be, and families if there was a positive test, would be honest. We certainly, I think, can require simple screenings on a day-to-day basis.
“In terms of a vaccine, I think that’s a very different level of comfort and requirement. It really does involve a greater degree of decision-making by the families for various reasons. I think at this point our high schools and state associations are probably more comfortable with precautionary measures that are required.”
Niehoff said she’s aware of interest on the part of athletes and families who might want to transfer from a state where a sport is postponed to a nearby one where it will be played on time. She said she doesn’t know if state associations will consider Covid-19 as a legitimate grounds for transfer.
“We are hearing about this coast-to-coast, differing amounts,” she said. “What we are reminding folks when we are asked is that we need to pay attention first and foremost to the idea that no state association has canceled completely yet. The other thing we want to bear in mind is that these are high school student-athletes. Education-based athletic experience is our national priority, our mission to grow, our state associations’ focus.
“The great, great majority of high school student-athletes will not go on to play college and will not go on to receive a scholarship. We have to have a realistic perspective on what the numbers are in going to college. We also have to look at the fact that you do have some student-athletes who are elite. And if it looks as though their elite, sport-directed pathway is going to be challenged, there are families that may have a greater consideration for the level of importance of an athletic experience.”
The NFHS has slotted sports into categories ranging from low to high risk in terms of spreading the coronavirus. But state associations don’t have to agree on all the assessments. For example, while the NFHS put ice hockey and volleyball into the moderate risk category, New York governor Andrew Cuomo bumped them into the high-risk range.
“One of the sports that’s been a little bit controversial is basketball. We had originally put basketball and some of our field sports in the moderate range and some folks are saying, well basketball, really, we consider it to be a higher-risk sport,” Niehoff said. “So the federation is supporting what state association guidelines are. The great majority of what we issued and shared with states was taken and used. And states have sports medicine advisory committees. If those committees are more comfortable being more stringent, we support them.”
Mental health awareness
Niehoff stressed the importance of coaches and adults in general remaining engaged with their athletes as the fall sports season evolves.
“You’re going to be at eight months by the time they probably go back to school and activity in a lot of places. They (students) probably haven’t even been socially engaged over the summer,” she said. “So not only did they end the school year losing things that they were excited about, their summer was probably very atypical because traditional summer activities were probably not available. Now we’re looking at starting the school year…if we’re not looking forward toward those (fun) experiences our kids, they’re losing a huge part of their life that they were counting on.
“The other piece of this is that kids are going to express what they’re feeling in different ways. We probably don’t need to be as concerned about the kids that talk or the kids that even express anger, frustration, and they’re sharing it. I think we need to be really concerned about the kids in the middle that maybe seem a little bit flat, maybe a little bit reserved, maybe a little more reluctant to engage, and just know that kids are going to be all over the place in terms of the damage that’s been done and the resiliency that they have because now we’re extending into changing their fall, too.”
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Lindsay Kramer is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard and syracuse.com. Got a comment or idea for a story? He can be reached via email at LKramer@Syracuse.com.