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High school football classified as high-risk in new Mass. safety guidelines

Thanksgiving rivalries like Swampscott-Marblehead will look different if the state holds a high school football season under coronavirus safety guidelines.
Thanksgiving rivalries like Swampscott-Marblehead will look different if the state holds a high school football season under coronavirus safety guidelines.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

The state’s office of Energy and Environmental Affairs released updated guidelines Thursday that recommend safety measures for youth sports that apply to K-12 schools, giving the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association guidance regarding which sports may be able to have a fall season during the coronavirus pandemic.

The EEA classified sports into low-, moderate-, or high-risk categories, with the distinction that in high-risk sports “there is a requirement or a substantial likelihood of routine close and/or sustained proximity or deliberate physical contact between parties.”

The sports break down as such:

High risk: Football and competitive cheer are the only fall sports classified as high-risk.

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Moderate risk: Soccer, which had been classified as high-risk in the state’s original Phase 3 reopening guidelines, was bumped down to moderate risk, meaning sports “that involve intermittent close proximity, or limited, incident physical conduct between participants.” Field hockey and volleyball also fall into this category.

Low risk: Golf and cross-country fall into this category, meaning they “can be done with social distancing and no physical contact.”

The MIAA now awaits further guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is expected to release a statement by Monday. The MIAA Board of Directors will meet no later than three business days after the release of the DESE guidelines.

To prepare for a fall season, the MIAA’s COVID-19 Task Force will have to consider modifications for moderate- and high-risk sports to allow for competition.

The EEA recommends that sports be conducted outdoors when possible, practices be shortened and modified to keep players 6 feet apart, the sharing of equipment be reduced, and protective equipment be used to prevent the spread of respiratory particles.

For football to be played this fall, games would have to eliminate contact by replacing tackling with flags or playing a two-hand touch in a seven-on-seven format.

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Steve Dembowski talks with officials before a 2019 game.
Steve Dembowski talks with officials before a 2019 game.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Steve Dembowski, the state coaches representative on the MIAA’s Football Committee, asserts that modifications might be possible if teams are allowed to practice this fall in preparation for a football season in the spring.

“This document eliminates tackle football for the fall,” said Dembowski, the head coach at Milton High.

“But this document tells us, too, that some parts of football could be done. So if [the MIAA task force] could grant us time this fall to have practices that abide by the guidelines, it could give kids that aren’t going to be able to transition to another sport some physical activity.

“Coaches across the state are concerned about the social and emotional health of these kids. They’ve been on a string for months now, and now other fall athletes are going to be able to compete, and they’re not going to be able to get that. So if they could get some time to provide some conditioning, skill training, team building, that would go so far.”

The EEA does not address the logistical issues regarding travel for various sports, so the MIAA may have to wait for guidance from the DESE to determine the nature of scheduling and competition for each sport.

The MIAA COVID-19 Task Force previously recommended a delayed start date of Sept. 14 for fall sports.