HUNTINGTON — As it turns out, Wednesday wasn’t just a busy day for the NCAA.
On Wednesday morning, the National Federation of State High School Associations released a document labeled “Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities” to help all of its 51 state associations in the process of bringing back sports in time for the 2020-21 year.
NFHS’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee pointed out in its release that the resumption of athletics is a vital aspect for all young student-athletes.
“The NFHS SMAC believes it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the nation to return to physical activity and athletic competition,” the release said.
One measure included in the NFHS recommendations involved state associations granting a “one-year extension” on physicals that were set to expire before or during the 2020-21 season. Physicals are required for student-athletes to be eligible to play sports.
That one-year extension is a safety measure due to the overwhelming burden on primary care clinics and the risks involved with visiting such clinics due to the new coronavirus. If adopted by a state, a student-athlete could be granted that extension as long as they satisfy requirements, which includes no significant change in health situation from the year when the examination took place.
That also keeps there from being a backlog to get into a doctor’s office, which could delay individuals from being eligible once the season begins. Students who are incoming freshmen and/or have never played before are still required to have a physical prior to eligibility, according to the recommendation.
“We believe that this unprecedented event allows for state associations to be flexible in their current requirements while maintaining a balance between student safety, the benefits of athletic participation and easing the burden on local primary care providers,” the release said.
While the NFHS left the opening there for states to forgo physical examinations for the 2020-21 year, Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, said that is one area in which the state likely will go away from the NFHS recommendations.
That means all athletes in West Virginia will be required to complete a physical examination prior to competing in fall sports.
“We met with our sports medicine committee and it is my recommendation that we do not grant a waiver and that everyone is responsible to get a physical,” Dolan said. “In my opinion, in the worst health crisis we’ve had in however long, I don’t think it’s a good time to say, ‘Let’s not worry about a physical — especially with the uncertainty of this virus.’”
The recommendations on requiring physicals are one of many aspects that the NFHS tried to help respective states with in releasing the guidelines on Wednesday.
“We are working closely with those guidelines, but that is one area we have gone away from,” Dolan said.
Much like the NCAA, the NFHS is leaving it up to its 51 state associations to coordinate with state and local guidelines to reach a time to properly return to practice and game situations. Dolan said he is on a committee for the Department of Education to determine a plan for the return of athletics.
For West Virginia, that time may be sooner than for other surrounding states with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s “West Virginia — The Comeback” plan already in its fourth week of a five-week span to reopen businesses and the numbers of COVID-19 cases staying steady to this point.
Like the NCAA’s proposal, the NFHS is recommending a three-phase “opening up” that is largely based off the principles set forth by White House documentation released in April.
The first phase includes screening with temperature checks for players and coaches, along with gatherings of 10 or fewer people at one time. Workouts are coordinated with the same 5-10 students working out together, which minimizes risk. All work would be relegated to individual drills in which players do not share athletic balls. Following each individual drill, equipment or athletic balls should be cleaned prior to the next scheduled workout.
The second phase continues with gathering of 10 or fewer for indoor training, but outdoor training — football, soccer, etc. — can have up to 50 people. Locker rooms, which were closed in the first phase, would be permitted with social distancing recommendations followed.
In phase two, moderate risk sports — as outlined by NFHS — can begin modified practices. Those sports include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer and gymnastics.
The final phase is when high-risk sports, such as football, wrestling, lacrosse, cheer and dance can resume. Gatherings with 50 people are allowed indoors and outdoors as long as social distancing elements are in place.
Dolan said that, like the NFHS, the WVSSAC will provide guidelines as recommendations, but the ultimate decision will fall on individual counties as to whether to field a team in a particular sport.
That puts in a buffer in case of one county becoming a hotspot, as outlined by Justice’s COVID-19 updates.
“Let’s say Monongalia County pops back up as a hot spot, but nobody else does,” Dolan said. “Is that going to affect just that one county? I would say yes. There are going to be limitations there. I’d say this year, though, we will have places that are go and others that have a possibility to be a no-go. There may even be sports that are a go and some that are a no-go.”
With the pathway clearing for the return of sports, schools have started to plan for their three-week summer period. Morgantown High School athletics announced a date period of July 13-31 on Wednesday morning on its Twitter feed.
Huntington High Athletic Director Bruce Senior said via text that the Cabell County Board of Education has not made it official yet, but it is expected that Cabell County’s summer period will likely be July 13-31 as well. Dolan said counties can choose any three weeks within the WVSSAC guidelines. That three-week period will also be subject to the safety guidelines adhered to by the NFHS and WVSSAC.
“Some are going (July) 6-25, others are going the 13th to 31st,” Dolan said. “Any county can pick and choose their three weeks. Those are the two most popular.”
The 2020-21 fall sports season in West Virginia is scheduled to open with practices beginning on Aug. 3 in several sports. That start day is still fluid, depending on the COVID-19 situation, according to Dolan.