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NFHS releases guidance for opening high school athletics and activities

05/20/2020, 12:00pm CDT
By Travis Wilson

On Tuesday, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) released guidance on the resumption of high school athletic opportunities that can be used by state associations as they consider when and how to return to play.

The document, which be viewed in its entirety here, was produced by the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and outlines policies and procedures that can be administered based on a phased approach to sports returning. There are three phases, based on the phases from the White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again plan announced by President Trump in April.

With states around the country in varying phases of re-opening and many not following the Opening Up American Again guidelines specifically, it is unclear how the phases may apply here in Wisconsin following last week's Supreme Court decision to strike down most parts of the Badger Bounce Back plan.

While the NFHS is the national governing body of high school sports, these guidance announced this week is just guidance for states to consider, and not a required plan that must be followed exactly.

“Each state’s situation and considerations for returning to youth and high school activities are somewhat unique based on state executive orders and local policy decisions,” said WIAA Communications Director Todd Clark.

“The guidelines and considerations provided by the NFHS are consistent with the discussions we are having and sharing with staff, the Board of Control and our Sports Medical Advisory Committee. We will continue to review the evolving information as it becomes available and work with state and local officials, the state’s Department of Health Services, and our Sports Medical Advisory Committee, which are a few of many sources we will consider in developing a plan to move forward. The key factor is continuing to keep in mind the safety of the student-athletes and everyone affected by reopening.”

The NFHS document emphasizes that, while there are challenges that will be encountered, high school sports will return and serve a vital purpose to players and communities around the country.

"The NFHS SMAC believes it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the nation to return to physical activity and athletic competition," the guidance document says. "The NFHS SMAC recognizes that it is likely that ALL students will not be able to return to – and sustain – athletic activity at the same time in all schools, regions and states. There will also likely be variation in what sports and activities are allowed to be played and held. While we would typically have reservations regarding such inequities, the NFHS SMAC endorses the idea of returning students to school-based athletics and activities in any and all situations where it can be done safely."

A concern voiced in the document echoed by many coaches around the state is the physical conditioning of student-athletes, who have not been able to participate in spring sports or guided strength and conditioning programs for an extended period. 

"Current pre-season conditioning and acclimatization models assume that athletes have deconditioned over the summer months," the NFHS document reads. "The current pandemic may result in students being deconditioned for four to five months. The NFHS is currently involved with a number of other organizations in developing consensus guidelines for fall sports practices. These guidelines will be sent to state associations immediately after they are finalized and approved by all involved organizations."

The full phased guidelines can be found below, but a few highlights include:

  • Sports are broken into three risk categories; High Risk sports that involve sustained close contact include football, wrestling, lacrosse, cheer, and dance; Moderate Risk sports include basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer, gymnastics, tennis, and more; Lower Risk sports include individual running events, individual field events, swimming, golf, and others.
  • Phase 1 would allow small-group instruction with gatherings limited to just 10 people, and would allow no shared athletic equipment, including balls. This would mean basketball players could not pass to each other, football players could not do handoffs or passes, and baseball and softball players could not throw to each other.
  • Phase 2 would limit gatherings to 10 people while inside or 50 people while outside while still requiring six-foot physical distancing. Sports that use a ball could allow the ball to be passed from one person to another, though recommends cleaning intermittently during practices and contests. Lower Risk sports can begin practices and competitions, while modified practices can resume for Moderate Risk sports.
  • Phase 3 would limit gathering sizes to 50 people, both indoors and outdoors. Moderate Risk sports can begin practices and competitions, while High Risk sports can begin modified practices.
  • All phases emphasize health screening, cleaning, disinfecting, hygiene, and social distancing.

Again, the NFHS guidelines are just a template for state associations to consider, and the WIAA is expected to develop state-specific guidelines on reopening high school sports in Wisconsin in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Phase 1 - NFHS Recommended Guidelines

Pre- workout Screening:

  • All coaches and students should be screened for signs/symptoms of COVID-19 prior to a workout. Screening includes a temperature check.
  • Responses to screening questions for each person should be recorded and stored so that there is a record of everyone present in case a student develops COVID-19 (see Appendix II for sample Monitoring Form).
  • Any person with positive symptoms reported should not be allowed to take part in workouts and should contact his or her primary care provider or other appropriate health-care professional.
  • Vulnerable individuals should not oversee or participate in any workouts during Phase 1.

Limitations on Gatherings:

  • No gathering of more than 10 people at a time (inside or outside).
  • Locker rooms should not be utilized during Phase 1. Students should report to workouts in proper gear and immediately return home to shower at end of the workout.
  • Workouts should be conducted in “pods” of students with the same 5-10 students always working out together. Smaller pods can be utilized for weight training. This ensures more limited exposure if someone develops an infection.
  • There must be a minimum distance of 6 feet between each individual at all times. If this is not possible indoors, then the maximum number of individuals in the room must be decreased until proper social distancing can occur.

Facilities Cleaning:

  • Adequate cleaning schedules should be created and implemented for all athletic facilities to mitigate any communicable diseases.
  • Prior to an individual or groups of individuals entering a facility, hard surfaces within that facility should be wiped down and sanitized (chairs, furniture in meeting rooms, locker rooms, weight room equipment, bathrooms, athletic training room tables, etc.).
  • Individuals should wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with warm water and soap before touching any surfaces or participating in workouts.
  • Hand sanitizer should be plentiful and available to individuals as they transfer from place to place.
  • Weight equipment should be wiped down thoroughly before and after an individual’s use of equipment.
  • Appropriate clothing/shoes should be worn at all times in the weight room to minimize sweat from transmitting onto equipment/surfaces.
  • Any equipment such as weight benches, athletic pads, etc. having holes with exposed foam should be covered.
  • Students must be encouraged to shower and wash their workout clothing immediately upon returning to home.

Physical Activity and Athletic Equipment:

  • There should be no shared athletic equipment (towels, clothing, shoes, or sports specific equipment) between students.
  • Students should wear their own appropriate workout clothing (do not share clothing) individual clothing/towels should be washed and cleaned after every workout.
  • All athletic equipment, including balls, should be cleaned after each use and prior to the next workout.
  • Individual drills requiring the use of athletic equipment are permissible, but the equipment should be cleaned prior to use by the next individual.
  • Resistance training should be emphasized as body weight, sub-maximal lifts and use of resistance bands.
  • Free weight exercises that require a spotter cannot be conducted while honoring social distancing norms. Safety measures in all forms must be strictly enforced in the weight room.
  • Examples (including by limited to):
    • A basketball player can shoot with a ball(s), but a team should not practice/pass a single ball among the team where multiple players touch the same ball.
    • A football player should not participate in team drills with a single ball that will be handed off or passed to other teammates. Contact with other players is not allowed, and there should be no sharing of tackling dummies/donuts/sleds.
    • A volleyball player should not use a single ball that others touch or hit in any manner.
    • Softball and baseball players should not share gloves, bats, or throw a single ball that will be tossed among the team. A single player may hit in cages, throw batting practice (with netting as backstop, no catcher). Prior to another athlete using the same balls, they should be collected and cleaned individually.
    • Wrestlers may skill and drill without touching a teammate.
    • Cheerleaders may not practice/perform partner stunts or building. (Chants, jumps, dances without contact are permissible.)
    • Tennis players may do individual drills, wall volleys and serves.
    • Runners should maintain the recommended 6 feet of distancing between individuals

Hydration:

  • All students shall bring their own water bottle. Water bottles must not be shared.
  • Hydration stations (water cows, water trough, water fountains, etc.) should not be utilized.

Phase 2 - NFHS Recommended Guidelines

Pre-Workout/Contest Screening:

  • All coaches and students should be screened for signs/symptoms of COVID-19 prior to a workout. Screening includes a temperature check.
  • Responses to screening questions for each person should be recorded and stored so that there is a record of everyone present in case a student develops COVID-19 (see Appendix II for sample Monitoring Form).
  • Any person with positive symptoms reported should not be allowed to take part in workouts and should contact his or her primary care provider or other appropriate health-care professional.
  • Vulnerable individuals should not oversee or participate in any workouts during Phase 2.

Limitations on Gatherings:

  • No gathering of more than 10 people at a time inside. Up to 50 individuals may gather outdoors for workouts.
  • If locker rooms or meeting rooms are used, there must be a minimum distance of 6 feet between each individual at all times.
  • Workouts should be conducted in “pods” of students with the same 5-10 students always working out together. Smaller pods can be utilized for weight training. This ensures more limited exposure if someone develops an infection.
  • There must be a minimum distance of 6 feet between each individual at all times. If this is not possible indoors, then the maximum number of individuals in the room must be decreased until proper social distancing can occur. Appropriate social distancing will need to be maintained on sidelines and benches during practices. Consider using tape or paint as a guide for students and coaches.

Facilities Cleaning:

  • Adequate cleaning schedules should be created and implemented for all athletic facilities to mitigate any communicable diseases.
  • Prior to an individual or groups of individuals entering a facility, hard surfaces within that facility should be wiped down and sanitized (chairs, furniture in meeting rooms, locker rooms, weight room equipment, bathrooms, athletic training room tables, etc.).
  • Individuals should wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with warm water and soap before touching any surfaces or participating in workouts.
  • Hand sanitizer should be plentiful and available to individuals as they transfer from place to place.
  • Weight equipment should be wiped down thoroughly before and after an individual’s use of equipment.
  • Appropriate clothing/shoes should be worn at all times in the weight room to minimize sweat from transmitting onto equipment/surfaces.
  • Any equipment such as weight benches, athletic pads, etc. having holes with exposed foam should be covered.
  • Students must be encouraged to shower and wash their workout clothing immediately upon returning to home.

Physical Activity and Athletic Equipment:

  • Lower risk sports practices and competitions may resume (see Potential Infection Risk by Sport below).
  • Modified practices may begin for Moderate risk sports.
  • There should be no shared athletic towels, clothing or shoes between students.
  • Students should wear their own appropriate workout clothing (do not share clothing), and individual clothing/towels should be washed and cleaned after every workout.
  • All athletic equipment, including balls, should be cleaned intermittently during practices and contests.
  • Hand sanitizer should be plentiful at all contests and practices.
  • Athletic equipment such as bats, batting helmets and catchers gear should be cleaned between each use.
  • Maximum lifts should be limited and power cages should be used for squats and bench presses. Spotters should stand at each end of the bar.

Hydration:

  • All students shall bring their own water bottle. Water bottles must not be shared.
  • Hydration stations (water cows, water trough, water fountains, etc.) should not be utilized.

Phase 3 - NFHS Recommended Guidelines

Pre- Workout/Contest Screening:

  • Any person who has had a fever or cold symptoms in the previous 24 hours should not be allowed to take part in workouts and should contact his or her primary care provider or other appropriate healthcare professional.
  • A record should be kept of all individuals present.
  • Vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions, but should practice physical distancing, minimizing exposure to social settings where distancing may not be practical, unless precautionary measures are observed.

Limitations on Gatherings:

  • Gathering sizes of up to 50 individuals, indoors or outdoors.
  • When not directly participating in practices or contests, care should be taken to maintain a minimum distance of 3 to 6 feet between each individual. Consider using tape or paint as a guide for students and coaches.

Facilities Cleaning:

  • Adequate cleaning schedules should be created and implemented for all athletic facilities to mitigate any communicable diseases.
  • Prior to an individual or groups of individuals entering a facility, hard surfaces within that facility should be wiped down and sanitized (chairs, furniture in meeting rooms, locker rooms, weight room equipment, bathrooms, athletic training room tables, etc.).
  • Individuals should wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with warm water and soap before touching any surfaces or participating in workouts.
  • Hand sanitizer should be plentiful and available to individuals as they transfer from place to place.
  • Weight equipment should be wiped down thoroughly before and after an individual’s use of equipment.
  • Appropriate clothing/shoes should be worn at all times in the weight room to minimize sweat from transmitting onto equipment/surfaces.
  • Any equipment such as weight benches, athletic pads, etc. having holes with exposed foam should be covered.
  • Students must be encouraged to shower and wash their workout clothing immediately upon returning to home.

Physical Activity and Athletic Equipment:

  • Moderate risk sports practices and competitions may begin.
  • There should be no shared athletic towels, clothing or shoes between students.
  • Students should wear their own appropriate workout clothing (do not share clothing), and individual clothing/towels should be washed and cleaned after every workout.
  • Hand sanitizer should be plentiful at all contests and practices.
  • Athletic equipment such as bats, batting helmets and catchers gear should be cleaned between each use. Other equipment, such as hockey helmets/pads, wrestling ear guards, football helmets/other pads, lacrosse helmets/pads/gloves/eyewear should be worn by only one individual and not shared.
  • Maximum lifts should be limited and power cages should be used for squats and bench presses. Spotters should stand at each end of the bar.
  • Modified* practices may begin for Higher risk sports:
    • *Continue pre-practice screening as in Phases 1 and 2. Shower immediately after practices/contests.
    • Re-assess epidemiology data and experiences in other states and other levels of competition to determine when Higher risk sports competition may resume.

Hydration:

  • All students shall bring their own water bottle. Water bottles must not be shared.
  • Hydration stations (water cows, water trough, water fountains, etc.) may be utilized but must be cleaned after every practice/contest.

About the Author

Travis Wilson serves as the WisSports.net General Manager, Football Editor, and contributing writer for other parts of the site. Wilson was selected as part of the Sports 40 Under 40 list by Coach & AD Magazine and the National High School Athletic Coaches Association for 2019. The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) named Travis the 2015 recipient of the Dave McClain Distinguished Service Award. He currently serves on the WFCA Executive Board as the Website and Communications Director and is a member of the Executive Board of the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association. A graduate of Richland Center High School and Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Travis was a three-sport athlete in high school (football, baseball, basketball) and currently resides in Reedsburg. You can follow him on Twitter at @travisWSN.

For the latest and most up to date football news and recruiting information, follow Travis on Twitter @travisWSN. Email story ideas, recruiting info, etc. to Travis at travis(at)wissports.net.

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