New Jersey high school sports teams can begin their comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic July 13.
It will be a deliberate and, it’s hoped, safe road back.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association on Friday released its guidelines and protocols for Phase 1 of the return, which lasts from July 13-26 and allows noncontact workouts that last a maximum of 90 minutes. It is the first of four phases that will carry the state’s high school sports to the start of fall season practices Aug. 10.
“We are baby stepping this whole thing,” NJSIAA assistant director Tony Maselli said during a Zoom conference call with reporters Friday afternoon. “I’m sure (coaches and athletes) want to jump into practices and drills right away. Our whole goal is to slowly work our student-athletes back into normalcy as much as you can count on that right now.”
The start dates for the fall season remain unchanged at this point.
“We are full steam ahead with fall sports until some authority tells us otherwise,” NJSIAA Chief Operating Officer Colleen Maguire said. “My fear is that if NJSIAA cannot control fall sports and run them in a protected environment that there will be a void that will be exploited by third parties that don’t have the health, welfare and safety of student athletes as their No. 1 priority.”
The NJSIAA, which governs most New Jersey high school sports, detailed the Phase 1 guidelines in a six-page memo to the schools. The NJSIAA said every school will need to evaluate its ability to return to play against its available resources and its willingness to assume responsibility for student safety.
“The biggest hurdle that we see is are the schools going to be prepared to have kids back on their campus,” Maselli said. “Superintendents are going to have to open up their buildings.”
The guidelines were developed by the NJSIAA’s Medical Advisory Task Force in compliance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health. The guidelines include the following:
Student-athletes who have had COVID-19 or tested positive for the virus must get clearance from a doctor to participate.
Student-athletes who have pre-existing medical conditions and/or are immuno-compromised with diseases such as diabetes, asthma or other autoimmune disorders must be cleared by a doctor to participate.
Only outdoor workouts, and no contact among the participants. Indoor fall sports, such as girls volleyball and gymnastics, must conduct outdoor workouts.
Athletes must wear masks when not engaging in high-intensity aerobic activities. Coaches should always wear masks.
Any athlete with a temperature greater than 100.4 degrees will be sent home.
No more than 10 student-athletes may be grouped together in a single area, and the groups should be predetermined by the coach prior to the start of the workout. Student athletes in a group should maintain social distance of 6 feet. Groups should be 10 feet apart.
No sports equipment should be shared during Phase 1. Maselli said teams will be permitted to pass a ball back and forth, but the ball should be disinfected at the end of practice and that coaches and athletes should exercise caution when picking a ball up.
There are no intersquad competitions.
There will be no spitting or chewing gum or seeds.
The NJSIAA said it will provide guidance on Phase 2 of the return at least two weeks before that phase begins. Coaches can continue virtual contact with athletes until the July 13 workouts begin.
Maselli said there are no set benchmarks for moving from Phase 1 to Phase 2. He said the NJSIAA will continue to monitor the virus’ impact on the state.
“I wish there were benchmarks, (but) this is so new to everyone,” he said. “We’re going to make sure spikes aren’t happening. These phases are subject to change. The phases cannot only go forward, but they can go backwards.”
The NJSIAA emphasized that high school sports must stay in sync with the return of schools. Maselli said the state is working to return more than 1.5 million teachers and students, including 283,000 student-athletes, without causing a significant spike in the virus.
No high school sports events have been played in New Jersey since March 11. The virus led to the cancellation of what was left of the winter season and all the spring season.
“We hope that by announcing July 13 — while it’s still going to be baby-stepping along the way — hopefully it’s going to give (student athletes) a sense of relief,” Maguire said. “Like, ‘Wow, I might be able to see my high school team and coach soon.’ That mentally, right now, is very important for the kids to hear.”