MHSAA offers schools guidance on returning to sports; athletes can wear masks in competition

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Michigan High School Athletic Association will allow but not mandate athletes to wear cloth face masks during competition in most sports, while warning that a recurrence of the coronavirus is a "near certainty" and threatens to cancel more games and championships.

The message came Friday in a 12-page outline offering guidance, in a gradual, three-phase plan, on when and how schools should restart sports.

The MHSAA has classified football as a "high-risk" sport with respect to COVID-19.

The MHSAA noted that no group activities can begin before June 12 under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home order, which has been extended multiple times and could be again. Because of that order, no specific timelines have been publicly offered by the MHSAA, which instead aims to make sure its membership is prepared for when things can get going again. 

The MHSAA outline was based off a model recently released by the National Federation of State High School Associations, in conjunction with the MHSAA's medical advisory panel, which was created just months before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of several high-school championships and the entire spring-sports slate.

“The MHSAA and its Representative Council believe restarting school sports is essential to the physical and mental well-being of students, and the guidelines outlined for schools today provide the ‘how’ for schools to return to athletics when they’ve received the go-ahead from state and county health officials,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in a statement.

“We are thankful for our state government, state education and health departments, our medical partners and the NFHS for their guidance these last few months, and we will continue to follow and pass on their recommendations as we prepare our schools to bring back this part of student life that’s been sorely missed.”

The recommendations

The MHSAA is recommending the three-phase process in restarting prep sports, focusing on five key areas: pre-workout and game screening of athletes and coaches; limitations on the numbers of participants in any gathering; facility cleanliness; best practices for equipment use; and keeping athletes hydrated.

The MHSAA proposal also places sports into categories based on risk of COVID-19 transmission, with return-to-action guidelines varying based on classification.

High-risk sports include wrestling, football, boys lacrosse and competitive cheer; moderate-risk sports include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, bowling, ice hockey, girls lacrosse, 7-on-7 football, tennis and certain swimming and track and field activities; low-risk sports include golf, weightlifting, alpine skiing, sideline cheer, cross country and other swimming and track and field events.

The MHSAA guidelines also strongly encourages continued social distancing, even when it comes to transportation to and from sporting events, meaning teams might now have to schedule multiple vans or buses. Social-distancing will be encouraged on sidelines and benches, too, and schools will have to make decisions on attendance. The MHSAA classifies athletes, coaches, officials, event staff, medical staff and security as "essential," media as "preferred," and fans and vendors as "non-essential."

"I'm glad that there's a plan moving forward, as far as how things are going to be done when the time is right," said Matt Petry, a 10-year head varsity baseball coach at Orchard Lake St. Mary's. "It's very reasonable. What you want to be able to do is protect the health and safety of the student athletes."

Baseball is not likely to face the same challenges as other sports where contact is more frequent.

High school teams can't currently have team gatherings outside of what's allowed in the governor's order, like walking, running, hiking and golf — coaches can't be present if athletes choose to convene in any of those activities, however.

Many coaches are holding virtual team gatherings, to at least get some face time in amid the uncertainty.

And make no mistake, there remains a whole lot of that, even amid these guidelines.

"The return-to-play policies, which are very much commonsense, still limit what you can do with the kids," said Tim Gibson, head varsity football coach at Wayland High in west Michigan. "Are we gonna have our seven-on-sevens this summer? Team camps this summer? Or are we gonna have to wait until August?

"But I'm glad we can start kind of getting back to normalcy. The kids need that. They're itching to get back, even if (at first) we'll be limited to working with 10 at a time. It's huge for them."

When Whitmer's stay-home order is lifted, the MHSAA recommends gatherings initially be limited to 10 people, and gradually increase from there, in conjunction with state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Athletes and coaches will have to get temperature checks before activities, and anyone who has run a fever within the previous 24 hours will be asked to sit out. Regular COVID-19 testing for each athlete, coach and official doesn't appear feasible, given testing limitations throughout the country.

“Again, it is important to note that this document addresses ‘how’ schools can return to activity; the decision on ‘when’ schools can return to activity will be done under the direction of state government and health department officials," Uyl said. 

"As government actions impact this timeline, the MHSAA will continue to update all involved.”

As for masks, the MHSAA said cloth face coverings will be allowed in all sports with the exception of "high-intensity aerobic activity" such as swimming, distance running, etc. Full face shields won't be allowed. Coaches and officials can also wear masks.

'Kids are gonna be kids'

Petry said it's important that each athlete feel comfortable in competing, and if that includes wearing a mask, then he's glad that's an option.

His sport, baseball, for which he typically starts small-group conditioning workouts in the fall, should have fewer problems adapting to the so-called "new normal" than other sports, such as football or basketball, where athletes routinely make contact with each other during competition.

In baseball, precautions might include simpler tasks, such as wiping down the baseball periodically.

"There certainly will be challenges. Kids are gonna be kids, and are gonna want to mess around and get closer than the guidance," Petry said. "Some of the other sports, with constant physical contact, I think presents more of a challenge."

The COVID-19 shutdown came just as the MHSAA was gearing up for two of its signature events, the boys and girls state basketball finals. They were canceled for the first time since 1943.

In its recommendations issued Friday, the MHSAA warned schools that another COVID-19 outbreak is not only possible, but likely, and that schools should prepare for how to handle another shutdown when it pertains to sports.

It remains to be seen how schools operate in the fall, how many will reopen the doors and how many will continue to operate virtually. Most, for now, plan to open, though if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's that things change, and it's best to be flexible. The MHSAA maintains its policy that if schools are closed, there are no sports.

Also up in the air: How many schools will cut sports programs, given the budget reductions they're almost certain to be facing from the cash-strapped state coffers. More schools could move into the pay-to-play category, putting the financial onus on athletes' parents.

The MHSAA membership includes more than 1,500 public and private schools, half of them high schools. Schools don't pay dues. The MHSAA, rather, survives on sponsorships, championship revenues and registration fees from game officials, like umpires and referees.

The MHSAA expected to suffer financial losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars because of COVID-19, but while other state associations have had to cut staff, the MHSAA has kept its 26 full-time staffers employed in part thanks to money from the federal government as part of the small-business grant program.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984