How will high school sports safely return and what will they look like when they do?

The National Federation of State High School Association attempted to answer those questions on Monday when it announced the first official guidance its asking state high school associations to consider when planning to reopen high school athletics.

State organizations like the PIAA have traditionally followed NFHS recommendations on subjects like game rules, sports schedules and new technologies very closely. In this case, the NFHS encourages all decisions to be done on a region-by-region basis and will close consultation with health officials.

High school athletics have been on pause in Pennsylvania since mid-March and the PIAA has postponed any further sports activities until at least July 1.

The 16-page document released by the NFHS was developed by a 15-person committee that consisted of doctors, athletic trainers, high school coaches and officials, research specialists and state high school association executives.

“We believe this guidance document will be a tremendous resource for our member state associations as they determine the timetables for reopening sports and activities,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “The NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee utilized recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as some return-to-play considerations by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), in formulating this guidance document for re-opening athletics and other activities in our nation’s schools.”

Most notably, the NFHS proposes a gradual restart for when teams are allowed to gather again and separates that process into three phases:

Phase 1:

-All coaches and students are given a temperature check prior to workout.

-No gathering of more than 10 people at a time. Workouts conducted in “pods” of students with the same 5-10 students always working out together.

-Locker rooms will not be utilized.

All athletic equipment, including balls, should be cleaned after each use and prior to the next workout.

-There must be a minimum distance of six feet between each individual at all times.

Phase 2:

-Lower risk sports practices and competitions may resume.

-No gathering of more than 10 people at a time inside. Up to 50 individuals may gather outside for workouts.

-Locker rooms may be used if there is a minimum distance of six feet between each individual at all times.

-All athletic equipment, including balls, should be cleaned intermittently during practices and contests.

Phase 3:

- Moderate risk sports practices and competitions may begin.

-Gatherings of up to 50 individuals are allowed indoors and outdoors.

-Students and coaches should maintain a minimum distance of three feet when not directly participating in practice or games.

As mentioned in the last two phases, the NFHS has also broken down individual sports into three tiers: high risk, moderate risk and lower risk.

Sports that can be done "with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors" classify as low risk. They include: individual track-and-field activities, individual swimming, golf, weightlifting, sideline cheer and cross country running with staggered starts.

Moderate risk sports are classified as those that cannot be played with proper social distance but have protective equipment in place. It’s the longest list of the three, with basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, tennis and swimming relays all making the cut.

Finally, high risk sports that “involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers and (have a) high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between particles” include wrestling and football.

The NFHS recommends athletes wear cloth face masks in order to prevent the spread of the virus. It also says that in the event of an outbreak, teams would need to prepare to self-isolate for two or three weeks during the season.

The guidelines also lay out who should be allowed at events if there are still local health restrictions in place. Tier 1 (essential): Athletes, coaches, officials, event staff, medical staff, security. Tier 2 (preferred): media members. Tier 3 (non-essential): spectators and vendors.

Only Tier 1 and Tier 2 will be allowed to attend events until state/local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.

The NFHS document also addresses hygiene practices, transportation to and from events, social-distancing suggestions during contests and how to properly share and clean athletic equipment.

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