NFHS director says Michigan, other states need to be flexible in starting fall sports

David Goricki
The Detroit News

The Michigan High School Athletic Association is one of 27 state athletic associations across the country that still plans to have traditional sports for the fall. But National Federation of State High School Associations executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff said states need to be aware of frequent changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Niehoff said the NFHS plans to meet with 51 state association executive directors Tuesday in a Zoom call  to discuss concerns over opening the high school seasons. She said Virginia last week decided to not have football this fall, joining California, Nevada, Washington, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.

High school football teams in Michigan are set to begin practice on Aug. 10.

MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl announced on July 17 that the state was expected to have traditional sports being played in the fall, including football, with the first day of football practice set for Aug. 10.

The MHSAA Representative Council – its 19-member legislative body – was set to meet again Wednesday for further discussions on the plan for fall sports.

“Our state associations have to be in communication with governors’ offices, state education agencies and state health agencies as they make decisions, so as we communicate with executive directors we’re seeing a number of models emerge across the country,” Niehoff said Monday.

“Some states are maintaining a schedule that they want to return to activity as planned in the fall, although there might be a delay in preseason. Some state associations are actually modifying the start dates for sports, and others have flipped seasons altogether.”

Niehoff believes the majority of states will go to a hybrid academic model in the fall.

“So we will have one portion of students that might be in the school building for a couple of days, there might be a day in the middle of the week for cleaning, and we might see another portion of students coming to school at the end of the week,” Niehoff said.

But Niehoff stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all for high school sports nationally. In fact, Niehoff said some states could have different models within the state.

“It’s very likely you’ll have within a state some school districts that are back to activity, other school districts that are not, and even some school districts that are delaying sports seasons altogether,” Niehoff said.

“A couple of models that we’re seeing emerge involve a January-to-June approach for all seasons of sport. In some states were seeing a two-season approach and in some states we’re actually seeing an abbreviated three-season approach so you’re looking at far fewer contests into a state tournament option before we switch to the next season and finally the next, so we’re actually looking at states that will continue co-curricular interscholastic activity beyond the scheduled end of the school year.”

Niehoff said testing protocols also could vary among school districts.

“Our guidelines talked about some form of on-location screening capacity where states have resources, if they have medical professionals on site,” Niehoff said. “If they have only resources to do a non-contact temperature check, that might be the way to do it. Certainly questionnaires, part of the participation physical, looking at any preexisting condition that may be related to cardiopulmonary concerns, any flu-like or COVID-like symptoms. Have they been around people that have tested positive?

“A lot of what schools can do now on site is really through question and answer, and then saying we have a concern here, a little bit of red flag. We’ve got to develop this further. We have provided guidance about on-site testing and having a plan in place so that if there is a positive screening what to do about immediately isolating that person, any of those other folks in that small group of kids, that equipment, cleansing the facilities and the equipment and then using the staging process to come back to activity.

“We haven’t gone as far as to recommend the nasal swabs, but we do recommend there be a process to be able to screen kids on site through the schools.”

Niehoff believes sports could still be in play without in-person schooling.

“I believe that it is feasible, but again the philosophy of a school district regarding the connection between the academic half of the day and the co-curricular half of the day, I certainly appreciate that if there is a concern, I absolutely respect it and appreciate it,” Niehoff said.

“I was a high school principal so I get it, but I also think in places where we can responsibly provide resources to get kids engaged in something that has to do with the life of the school, the life of the team (we should do that). I think it’s absolutely feasible to implement those kinds of programs without in-person learning because likely there’s online learning that’s going on, so they are engaged in something that’s academic.”