National guidance provides considerations to jumpstart high school athletics

When student athletes return to campus in the fall, neither classrooms nor extracurricular activities will look the same. Under new guidance from the National Federation of State High School Associations, social distancing must be taken into account, and high-contact sports may not return for some time.

“Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities” — developed by the 15-member NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee — provides a possible three-phase progression for reopening participation in athletics. The committee is composed of medical doctors, certified athletic trainers, high school coaches and officials, research specialists and state high school association executives.

Each phase includes recommendations for conducting pre-workout or competition screenings, limitations on gatherings, facilities cleanings, requirements for physical activity and athletic equipment, and hydration.

NFHS officials said the guidance is meant to inform conversations between state student athletic associations — such as the California Interscholastic Federation, which cancelled all springs sports in early April — and their respective sports medicine committees and state health departments in designing plans that allow for the safe return of high school athletics. State or local restrictions should be followed.

“It is important to be clear that this is guidance for individual states to consider as they return to activities this fall,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “States will utilize the guidance in this document as it best fits their state after consulting with local and state health departments.”

The guidance addresses topics related to transportation to and from events, possible ways to implement social-distancing during competitions, hygiene practices and a tiered approach to who should be allowed to attend events.

A phased approach

In the first phase, NFHS recommends schools avoid more than 10 people gathering at one time, require temperature checks before workouts, and suggest “pods” of the same 5-10 students work out together throughout  to mitigate the amount of people each student comes into contact with. Additionally, no locker room use would be allowed in phase one and social distancing would be maintained.

Though temperature checks should continue in phase two, up to 50 people would be allowed to gather for outdoor workouts. In phase three, 50 or more people can gather indoors, but a 3-foot distance must be maintained when not participating in the competition. Socially distant locker room use is also approved in phases two and three, and it is recommended in all three phases that coaches and officials wear masks.

Unless further guidelines suggest otherwise, the NFHS recommends that cloth face coverings be worn by student athletes during phases one and two, with exceptions for swimming, distance running or other high intensity aerobic activity. “Cloth face coverings may continue to be used during phase three when not engaging in vigorous activity, such as sitting on the bench during contests, in the locker room and in the athletic training room,” the guidance reads.

High school sports are organized into categories of lower, moderate and higher risk, with NFHS guidance advising that lower risk sports resume at phase two and moderate risk at phase three. Higher-risk sports are not recommended until there is a widely available vaccine or heard immunity is achieved.

  • Lower risk: Individual running events, throwing events, individual swimming, golf, weightlifting, alpine skiing, sideline cheer, single sculling, or cross country running with staggered starts
  • Moderate risk: Basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, water polo, gymnastics, ice hockey, field hockey, tennis, swimming relays, pole vault, high jump, long jump, girls lacrosse, crew with two or more rowers in shell, or 7-on-7 football
  • Higher risk: Wrestling, football, boy’s lacrosse, competitive cheer, or dance

Due to the near certainty of recurrent outbreaks this coming fall and winter, NFHS officials noted that state associations must be prepared for periodic school closures and the possibility of some teams having to isolate for two to three weeks while in-season.