GLADWIN – Is there finally some good news on the horizon? Over the last three months we have been hit by a virus and flood. The economic repercussions of each will be felt for quite some time, but it appears that we may be getting some good news soon. The four major professional sports leagues are making plans to restart their seasons and the NCAA is planning for the return of both students and athletes to campus this fall. The return of sports looks imminent. 

High school athletes got some good news on Wednesday when Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Executive Director Mark Uyl disclosed that the MHSAA had a plan for resuming athletic activities on school campuses. Speaking on the Huge Show, a radio program last week Uyl outlined the plan. “We continue to be stuck in a little bit of a holding pattern,” said Uyl. This Friday (May 29) we will be providing the schools “road map” for reopening. Uyl went on to say, “the plan only addresses the how, the big unanswered question for everybody is when?”

The state’s current “Safer-at-Home” order has been lifted, but it is unclear when school facilities (indoor and outdoor) will be available. The order prevented organized on-site activity, including conditioning or competition, until expired or was lifted by the governor. “We will have things in place for when the state government leaders begin to reduce the restrictions,” continued Uyl. The plan allows for the return-to-activity recommendations to be implemented locally by school district leadership, provided the district declares its facilities open to students and staff and the 2019-20 school year has ended for that district (based on its last originally-scheduled school day).

Uyl stressed that the implementation of the plan is dependent on Governor Whitmer and state leaders. “We are working with our elected leaders to figure out when we can return. We are hoping to have some activity in the next week or two.” Uyl also mentioned “most schools would like a slow start in June which may mean that we wait to get summer activities started after 4th of July. We still can’t rush, we need to restart smartly so that we don’t end up paying for this again in September with a second spike.”

The MHSAA is relaxing some of its summer rules one of which is the allowing schools to use their uniforms for summer events. If the order is lifted soon enough some schools are planning to schedule competitions against their rivals to allow seniors a last chance to play for their school. One large district, with several high schools, is hoping to make the day into an athletic festival with competitions in baseball, softball, track, lacrosse, tennis and soccer. 

Uyl expects schools to open in the fall and is planning for a full athletic schedule. “If it is safe to have kids back in our buildings and college kids back on campus, that to me is a good sign.” The challenge will be setting rules and a calendar that is fair for everyone. “Some areas have been hard hit while others are virtually untouched.” Multiple options are being considered. One option is a normal start date with practices and competitions before Labor Day.  Another option is to not play any games until the Tuesday after Labor Day, but a late start could cause a multitude of problems. Winter sports would have to be pushed back, and large venues used for finals such as Ford Field and the Breslin Center may have scheduling conflicts. Spring break would also be impacted.

School districts around the state are being given the option of being creative with their schedules. “Some may consider starting early so they can be off during the flu season and a possible second round of COVID-19,” said Uyl, but what does that do to the sports schedule? Right now the first day of practice is scheduled for August 10. If schools move up the academic schedule it will actually coincide with the athletic schedule.

For Uyl the biggest question going forward is whether spectators will be allowed at games. Limiting games to players, coaches and absolutely necessary game day personnel makes for a very controlled group compared to a traditional Friday night football game. Thousands of fans in the stands would make contact tracing difficult. Professional leagues will probably restart without fans, but with every game on television most people will not be affected. High school sports are different they are community events. The atmosphere at the site is almost as important as the action on the field.

The MHSAA is exploring many options to ensure the safety of those involved. While it will be difficult to adequately social distance some precautions can be taken. “One is to require spectators to sign in with contact information so that they can be contacted if necessary. We have also talked to schools about moving their ticketing process online to reduce touch points and choke points at entrances,” added Uyl.

Uyl is optimistic that these concerns can be addressed. “I think it is possible for a lot of high school events to have limited spectators where you could easily and safely social distance. It is the contact tracing that is the challenge.” He went on to say, “I think that later in the year you could have bigger crowds.”

It is obvious that the MHSAA expects sports to return for the 2020/21 school year. A lot of planning has gone on to make it happen. To ensure the safety of all involved the MHSAA created a plan based off guidance from the National Federation of State High School Associations Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. The plan is a three-step process, which was outlined by Uyl last Wednesday. 

Step 1 Involves small groups (10 individuals) focusing on individual workouts and conditioning. All social distancing guidelines must be adhered to. 

Step 2 Larger Groups 

The six-foot distance must be maintained. Locker rooms and meeting rooms are acceptable as long as the six-foot distance is maintained. If the six-foot rule can’t be followed due to size constraints the size of the group must be reduced until the proper distance is achieved.

Step 3 “Path to Normalcy” practices can return to normal, but individuals should continue to maintain social distance when not actively participating.

The screening of athletes and coaches was addressed in the document along with outlines of best practices to be used to keep facilities and equipment clean. The document also sets limits on how many people and who is allowed to attend while restrictions on mass gatherings are still in place. Under the tiered proposal only essential personal, athletes, coaches, officials, medical staff and preferred media will be allowed. Non-essential individuals, spectators and vendors, will be prohibited until the restrictions are lifted.

The MHSAA is taking a “slow measured approach,” to the return of athletics. One that has a lot of contingencies, but one that also seems likely to get us back on the field and court in the fall.

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