CHESHIRE — Tackle football is a go. Ditto for indoor girls volleyball.
Every fall sport, for that matter, got the green light in the new high school sports re-opening plan the CIAC unveiled late Wednesday night and further explained in a Thursday morning press conference.
Bottom line? Scholastic football, soccer, volleyball, swimming, field hockey and cross country teams can start practicing in cohorts this Saturday, with an eye to starting full team practices on Sept. 21 and games on Oct. 1 — so long as COVID-19 case numbers in Connecticut remain low enough.
Underscore that last part several times over. Nothing is set in stone. As the CIAC likes to say, the sports situation is fluid because the coronavirus pandemic is fluid. COVID will steer the course.
As schools reopen and the calendar moves deeper into September, the CIAC’s plan will be continually re-evaluated based on the state’s virus data. For now, the curtain will rise on Saturday morning with cohort practices that allow conditioning and non-contact skill work in groups of no more than 10.
Those practices will continue for three weeks.
“We believe our kids, our athletes and our schools deserve the value of time and deserve the opportunity to at least begin under low-risk activities and then assess as we move forward,” CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said during Thursday’s press conference.
“We think it’s safe, we think it’s logical, we think it gives a progression. We think it addresses the social, emotional and mental health needs of our kids as well as their desire to compete.”
Football, recommended to be 7-on-7 by the state Department of Health, will be the traditional full-contact 11-on-11. The CIAC maintains the state’s low COVID numbers justify trying to play a season now, as compared to waiting until late winter or early spring, when the numbers are projected to be higher.
Volleyball, recommended by DPH to be played outdoors, will remain indoors for safety, weather and space concerns, though perhaps with players wearing masks.
While the CIAC is moving forward with a fall season, whether teams ever get to practice as full units or actually play games depends on the COVID-19 case numbers the CIAC will monitor throughout September
Don’t be surprised if there continue to be changes in the plan like the ones that have cropped up since the CIAC first unveiled its fall strategy on July 30.
“From the start of this, we’ve reminded everybody that our plan will be fluid; it will change as the information changes, as the metrics change,” Lungarini said.
One key date is Sept. 18, roughly two weeks after most districts start school. That’s when the CIAC will let schools know if Connecticut’s COVID numbers allows athletic programs to move ahead with the full-team practices scheduled to begin on Sept. 21.
“The CIAC believes that a minimum of two weeks of COVID data is necessary to determine whether the return to on campus instruction will impact extracurricular offerings,” the CIAC plan reads. “Therefore, no full team practices will occur prior to September 21.”
The CIAC will marry up its assessments with the state Department of Education’s “Indicators for Consideration of Learning Models,” which give guidance for in-school, hybrid and distance learning.
The leading indicator in that model is the seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 people. The secondary indicators are seven-day averages of percent test positivity, new hospitalizations and COVID-like illnesses reported at emergency rooms.
A color-coded chart included in the CIAC plan breaks down the numbers:
■Low-risk (favors in-school learning): Less than 10 percent new COVID cases per 100,000 with secondary indicators trending down to flat;■Moderate risk (favors hybrid plans): 10-24 new cases per 100,000 with secondary indicators trending flat to upward; ■High risk (favors distance learning): 25 or more new cases per 100,000 with secondary indicators trending upward.
If the state’s case numbers remain low after schools have been open for two weeks, the shift will be made to full team practices on the 21st.
If they start to rise to a moderate level — or if they do so in a significant number of school districts to the point where maintaining game schedules is not possible —activity will revert back to cohort conditioning and skill work practices.
If numbers spike into high-risk territory, all activities will be shut down. Sports will also stop if schools close and go to distance learning.
A review of COVID data will be conducted again before games commence on Oct. 1.
“We’re giving the time for kids to get back on campus under low-risk activities, and then take a very deliberate look to see if there is any impact to the COVID metrics,” Lungarini said. “At that point, we’ll decide whether it’s appropiate or not to be move to moderate-risk activities and then high-risk activities.”
Lungarini noted that providing sports for athletes through school is less risky than kids playing on their own, where social distancing and other precautions are less likely to be followed. In that regard, Lungarini made an appeal to athletes.
“We have an opportunity to play together, but to do that you have to commit to school, your family and your team and you have to forego those social experiences where you’re getting together in these unstructured environments, because that is where the riskis more likely.”
As for specific sports, the CIAC and Department of Public Health have been in agreement over cross country, soccer, swimming and field hockey.
Their differences have been over football and volleyball. The DPH recommended moving both to spring or, if they were to remain in the fall, going 7-on-7 in football and outdoors in volleyball.
The CIAC countered by pointing out discrepancies between the DPH’s stance for scholastic sports and the ReOpen CT guidelines for non-high school programs. During the summer, ReOpenCT allowed moderate-risk sports like volleyball to be played indoors starting June 17 and high-risk sports like football to be played outdoors starting July 6.
Given that COVID-19 cases have remained low, the CIAC argues, why should the landscape be different for high school?
Football, the CIAC further argues, is unlike other sports in that it does not have AAU or club options. The high school game is the only one for players of that age group, the only avenue to college recruiting, and every effort has to be made to play it.
The debate is not over and the plan unveiled Wednesday night gives the CIAC and DPH more time to hash out differences. Lungarini made it a point Thursday to stress that the CIAC is not defying the state’s wishes.
“We want, very clear, our message to be: We are listening to the recommendations that are coming from the Department of Health, we are aligning in many ways with the recommendations of the Department of Health,” Lungarini said. “We still have some questions and we still have some areas that we feel need to be explored as we go forward.”
The DPH is sticking with its stance on football and volleyball. Acting Commissioner Dr. Diedre Gifford said Thurdsay, “Those recommendations are unlikely to change. We’ve been consistent.”
The state appears to be entrusting the CIAC to make the call. Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday echoed the DPH position on football and the decision in other states to push football to late winter/early spring.
“That said, we do tend to leave these decisions up to the local leads and I think what they prudently said is, ‘Let’s do some practice for the next few weeks, then we’ll make up our mind in terms of competition later on in September,’” said Lamont. “I hope they make the right decision.”