Dr. Karissa Niehoff knows how important extracurricular activities are for the development of high school students.
As the executive director of The National Federation of State High School Associations, Niehoff believes student engagement in sports and performing arts is critical in gaining leadership, communication, and teamwork skills.
In a webinar Monday, Niehoff said a consistent pattern has emerged in her discussions with state associations across the country. As states decide on a plan for the high school sports season, she feels associations are in unison with her about the importance of getting students back in school and participating in activities this fall, if health guidelines are followed.
“There’s a wealth of research about the impact of participation in co-curricular programming on actual perseverance in school and learning life skills that carry on,” said Niehoff, the former executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools.
“There’s also research about folks leading business organizations who are saying a lot of the leadership skills they learned are directly tied to their participation in high school sport and activity. We are very much supportive of kids coming back assuming there are safeguards in place.”
Niehoff referenced a study done by the University of Wisconsin after the March shutdown of schools that showed nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 student-athletes polled had reported an increase in depression and anxiety likely linked to the closures of schools.
As of Monday, 24 state associations have delayed the start of the fall sports season, including Massachusetts, which elected last Tuesday to push back the start of the season until at least Sept. 14. The Independent School League, which is separate from the MIAA, announced last week it will not offer the traditional full slate of conference games or award a league championship.
Twenty-seven state associations have made no changes to its fall schedule so far, while five states — California, Nevada, Virginia, Washington, and New Mexico — plus the District of Columbia have already canceled fall football.
While decisions about high school sports season depend on each state’s health guidelines, Niehoff said state associations have begun planning for hybrid-type seasons. In the past week, Nevada and Virginia announced sports will be delayed until the winter, and that fall sports will be played during the spring.
In Iowa, however, state tournaments in baseball and softball are proceeding this summer with quarterfinal games taking place Tuesday and Wednesday, and semifinals and finals scheduled for this weekend.
“It’s very likely, within a state, you’ll see some school districts that are back to activity, some that are not, and some that will delay sports seasons,” Niehoff said. “A couple models we’re seeing emerge involve a January-June approach for all seasons. In some states were seeing a two-season approach, and in some we’re seeing an abbreviated three-season approach.”
Niehoff said the financial toll of canceling winter and spring sports and championships on state sports associations ranged from several hundred thousands of dollars to $2 million, and some states would be in “dire” financial situations if fall sports were canceled.
The NFHS, citing an aerosol study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland, recommended the wearing of masks for athletes in practice and live games.
In addition, the NFHS recommended all athletes and coaches undergo a daily temperature check as part of its screening process.
“Very powerful NCAA Division 1 leagues, like the Ivy League, have canceled their fall seasons, but the NFHS wants to be clear in our messaging that we are different,” Niehoff said. “We are different because we are education-based. By that, we’re looking at not just a focus on athletic and activities but getting kids back to school.”