Understanding that “fluidity” and “flexibility” are key buzzwords given the ever-changing landscape of the coronavirus pandemic, the MIAA’s Board of Directors took a big step on Wednesday in trying to provide as many athletic opportunities as possible for students across Massachusetts this fall.
The board unanimously approved recommendations from its COVID-19 Task Force to create a four-season model for the 2020-21 school year, and allow low-risk and potentially moderate-risk high school sports to take place, beginning in mid-September.
After receiving updated guidelines Tuesday from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and last week from the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the board voted, 23-0, to approve the recommendation to create a fourth “floating season” for high-risk sports such as football, as well as any other sports that are unable to compete during the traditional fall season.
“It’s exciting that we’re able to be talking about athletics actually taking place, for the first time since March,” said MIAA president Jeff Granatino, superintendent of schools in Marshfield.
“It’s something that we wanted to have back in the spring, and it didn’t work out, for very good reasons. While we have sports on the docket now for the fall, we stand ready to pivot if we need to, based on any changes that might come our way.”
Practices for approved Fall I sports can begin no earlier than Sept. 18, and the Fall I season would go through Nov. 20. The Winter season would run Nov. 30-Feb. 21, the new Fall II season from Feb. 22-April 25, and Spring from April 26-July 3.
The high-risk sports – football, competitive cheer and unified basketball – would be able to practice during the fall, provided individual schools can assure that EEA guidelines are followed.
The board also voted to allow any of the MIAA’s nine District Athletic Committees to make modifications to the schedule, whether for individual schools, or an entire league or region.
Duxbury athletic director Thom Holdgate said the COVID-19 Task Force, which had been meeting regularly since May and worked with both DESE and EEA to help develop the new guidelines, considered several models. One would have moved football to the spring, but the task force chose to recommend the four-season schedule with no overlap of dates.
“One of the big things that we wanted to put forth was to not have kids have conflicts with their regular sports,” Holdgate said.
The new format also opened up the possibility of a student-athlete being able to play four sports in a single school year, which the board unanimously approved.
The majority of fall sports – swimming, girls’ volleyball, field hockey, and soccer – fall in the “moderate risk” category according to EEA guidelines. The board approved a timeline requiring individual sport committees and the MIAA’s Sports Medicine Committee to come up with modifications by Aug. 25 that would allow those sports to meet Level 3 requirements for competition. The task force would review the modifications for final consideration by Granatino and MIAA executive director Bill Gaine by Sept. 1.
Any sport that is unable to meet the Level 3 guidelines could be eligible to be moved to the Fall II “floating” season. A sport that begins play in the fall, and then has to shut down individual schools or leagues because of COVID-19, can petition the District Athletic Committee to move competition to the Fall II season.
But there’s one issue that could potentially be more challenging: How to deal with individual schools and the status of local cities and towns per Department of Public Health metrics.
Deborah Davis, chair of the school committee at Northeast Metro Tech, said that three of the Wakefield vocational school’s 12 municipalities – Chelsea, Revere and Saugus – are among the 11 towns that were designated as “red” by DPH metrics as of Tuesday. Per DESE guidelines, towns in red “must postpone their entire season, including practices” until the Fall II season.
“I’m not even sure how we proceed with that,” Davis said, noting that many of the “red” communities might be attributed as such by factors that don’t affect school populations.
St. John’s Prep principal Dr. Keith Crowley, who co-chaired the task force, said that he believed that guidance from DESE still is forthcoming regarding schools —regional, vocational, parochial, or charter — that draw from multiple towns.
“I think that schools should work with their local departments of public health and let that be the guideline as to how they report if there are those scenarios,” Crowley said.
The board approved a requirement for individual schools to report to the MIAA, as well as any opponent schools, any change in the school’s public health status that might affect its ability to compete.
For schools in any of the unshaded, green or yellow designations per DPH metrics, the decision on whether to compete will be at the discretion of the local school committee.
District Athletic Committees will be tasked with helping schools and leagues develop schedules with flexibility so that schools can compete with those closer geographically. The MIAA will not sponsor tournaments for the fall, and will examine postseason opportunities for other seasons at a later date.
While the board unanimously approved most of the task force’s recommendations, there was plenty of discussion and dissension regarding a motion – approved by a 13-7 vote – to allow out-of-season coaching for the 2020-21 season, as approved by individual school principals. Board members recognized the “Pandora’s box” of allowing out-of-season coaching, but believed it was important to allow opportunities for students who missed out on spring sports or might have their sports moved from the fall season.
“I think this engagement is really, really important for kids,” said Cambridge athletic director Tom Arria, noting that spring athletes already missed out on the 2020 season, with no guarantees for how long school sports will be able to be played during the pandemic.
Jim Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.