The MIAA Board of Directors, based on the recommendation of its COVID-19 task force, unanimously voted Tuesday to push back the start of fall sports in Massachusetts until at least Sept. 14.
However, task force co-chairs Thom Holdgate and Keith Crowley stressed that any final say of when fall sports will begin will be based on guidelines the MIAA receives from government agencies in Massachusetts.
Holdgate said the task force has had ongoing discussions since early July with the staff of Governor Charlie Baker, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
“Although we won’t be the people that make the final decision, at least they’re allowing for us to share information with them,” said Holdgate, athletic director at Duxbury.
Crowley, the principal at St. John’s Prep, said there were two reasons for the proposed start date. The first was based on recommendations from the Sports Medicine Committee, which believed there could be issues if sports started practicing in August and schools had to deal with COVID-19 cases even before the start of classes. Practices originally were slated to begin Aug. 21 for football, and Aug. 24 for all other fall sports.
Crowley also said there was a need for administrators to get schools opened again before allowing any sports to begin.
“There could be changes [to the start date] in the meantime, obviously, but this at this point in time is what we’re recommending,” Crowley said.
Speaking to the board later in the virtual meeting, DESE commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley said he appreciated the work of the task force and promised it would be taken into consideration “as we try to get a good result for our kids.”
“If we can do sports, we’d certainly like to do it, but only if we feel like it can be done in a safe way,” said Riley, noting that he was a three-sport athlete in high school. “I’m a big fan of athletics. On the other hand, we need to balance that with the safety issues and responsibilities there.”
The task force, made up of 24 administrators and various representatives of high school athletics throughout the state, has been meeting for an hour or two each week since it was assembled in May, according to Holdgate.
Holdgate also said the task force has been examining the plans of other states, although it is more closely aligning with what is done in the Northeast. New York has delayed its start of fall sports to Sept. 21, and canceled all regional and state tournament competition for the fall. New Jersey is beginning fall practices Sept. 14 and competitions for all sports — including football — between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2.
Vermont, the lone other New England state to issue guidelines for the fall, pushed back fall practice starts from Aug. 10 to the first day of school.
Other states have been mixed in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to high school athletics. While Florida voted Monday to continue with fall sports beginning next week despite being a virus hot spot, California will not resume sports until at least December.
The MIAA task force surveyed member schools, receiving more than 1,000 responses from administrators and coaches. All constituents cited health and safety of student-athletes, mental health of student-athletes, and return to school as priorities, and also “placed emphasis on prioritization of regular-season play opportunities [over] postseason play/state tournaments.”
“We sent the survey in mid-June to everyone and tried to make sure that all stakeholders had the opportunity to provide us with some insight,” said MIAA assistant director Sherry Bryant, “to help guide us as we were looking at how we wanted to go forward here and making sure we were prioritizing our efforts appropriately.”
Board members acknowledged many questions will remain unanswered until the MIAA receives its guidance from the state, which Riley said could come in early August. Among them is whether some sports will be allowed to start while others are restricted — mirroring Baker’s Phase 3 reopening guidelines in which football, soccer, and competitive cheer are the fall sports among those not allowed to hold competitions.
“I think we’re going to look at all possibilities and see what could be done if we do go forward,” Riley said. “I can’t say it definitely will or will not be all-or-nothing at this time, but I think we do recognize that some sports may be more intensive than others.”
The board voted unanimously to convene within three business days of receiving state guidance “to discuss the fall season and consider additional recommendations from the COVID-19 task force.”
Among the remaining items of consideration for the task force are reviewing safety guidelines from the Sports Medicine Committee, and making recommendations for postseason play for the 2020-21 year.
“Regardless of what we end up with this fall, the [MIAA] continues to stand ready to meet the needs of our stakeholders,” MIAA president and Marshfield superintendent Jeffrey Granatino said.
The board also unanimously approved a recommendation from executive director Bill Gaine to suspend its postgame handshake protocol.
In other business, the board welcomed five new members for the 2020-21 school year: principals Brian Callaghan (Westborough) and Mike Schultz (Carver); and athletic directors Charlie Conefrey (Malden), Mark Miville (Quabbin), and Peter Rittenburg (Brookline). The board also unanimously approved Pioneer Charter School of Science II (Saugus) as a new MIAA member.