What happens now? Explaining high school sports in the age of Covid-19

BRYAN EATON/Staff photoTriton's Gianna Conte and Pentucket's Meg Freiermuth battle for the ball during a game last fall. High school sports are going to look a lot different this season when games resume in a couple of weeks.

The past few months have brought a seemingly endless onslaught of uncertainty when it comes to high school sports. Will the fall season be played? What sports can be played? What will those sports look like? Will every school get to participate?

At long last, most of those unanswerable questions finally have an answer, and on Friday local high school athletes will start tryouts for what promises to be the strangest and most unique high school season in area history.

So what can people expect? Well, a lot has happened and a lot is going to be different, so you’d be forgiven if there are things you might not understand or need clarified. So here’s a primer on what you can expect this fall season, as well as a few things we’re still not sure about.

What schools will be competing this fall?

All five of the Greater Newburyport’s public schools have received approval to play fall sports, including Newburyport, Amesbury, Triton, Pentucket and Georgetown. In addition, nine of the Cape Ann League’s 11 teams have received approval, with two more (Manchester Essex and Lynnfield) expected to address the issue on Tuesday. Manchester Essex will most likely approve, but Lynnfield may need to postpone due to it currently being listed as a “red” community according to the Department of Public Health’s Covid-19 safety metric.

Governor’s Academy and the rest of the Independent School League decided earlier this summer not to sponsor a full slate of fall sports, though the individual schools may schedule games independently if they choose. For our purposes, this article will focus on the local public schools and the CAL specifically.

What sports will be played?

This fall the CAL will sponsor soccer, field hockey, golf and cross country. Football, girls volleyball and fall cheerleading have been postponed to the floating “Fall 2” season, which was created by the MIAA to accommodate any sport that can’t be played this fall due to safety reasons. The floating season will run from Feb. 22 to April 25 and will not conflict with the winter or spring seasons, meaning an athlete who typically plays football, basketball and baseball will still have the opportunity to play all three. In fact, for the first time athletes will have the chance to play four varsity sports over the course of the year.

When will the season take place?

Fall tryouts will begin on Friday, Sept. 18, and games are expected to begin in late September to early October. The CAL has not been able to finalize its schedules without knowing exactly what schools will participate, but the expectation is that teams will play approximately 10-game regular season schedules with everybody in the league playing each other once. The hope is to play roughly two games per week, and the league anticipates playing a lot of games on weekends to minimize transportation issues. The season will be over by Nov. 20.

Will there be a postseason?

There will be no MIAA tournaments sponsored this fall, but individual leagues may hold their own postseason tournaments in the same fashion that college conferences typically do. The CAL has indicated that it hopes to go this route.

What measures have been taken to help keep athletes safe?

Between the state, MIAA, CAL and local schools, extensive safety protocols have been developed and implemented to try and keep athletes as safe as possible. The specific rule changes are too numerous to cover here, but in general all sports will play with modified rules to limit physical contact and encourage social distancing as much as possible. Some of the changes are pretty radical, with soccer eliminating headers, throw-ins and shoulder-to-shoulder contact while field hockey plays 7 on 7 games instead of the usual 11 on 11.

Locally, CAL schools have agreed to a uniform set of safety protocols that will be consistent across the league. Teams will line up on opposite sidelines during games instead of on the same side of the field, coaches will share rosters with everyone’s contact information in order to facilitate contact tracing, and for at least the first two weeks of the season no fans will be allowed.

What happens if there is a Covid outbreak?

If anyone involved in athletics tests positive or is otherwise exposed to the virus, school officials will notify the local Board of Health, which will begin contact tracing to determine the extent of the potential outbreak. The affected teams will then shut down until the investigation is complete, likely for at least 48 hours, and if no other positive cases are found then the teams can resume playing. If a significant outbreak occurs, however, teams could experience a longer disruption, including the possible postponement or cancelation of the season. In addition, if a school district moves to “red” in the DPH’s Covid-19 metric, all sports across that district would have to shut down. 

Is it just me or does all of this seem pretty bizarre?

You know what, everything about this situation is bizarre. If you went back in time and told me that in Fall 2020 there would be no high school football, NFL games being played in empty stadiums and that the Boston Celtics would be playing playoff games at Disney World in September, I’d have looked at you like you were crazy. But here we are, and one thing that state and school officials at all levels have emphasized is that if high school sports are going to work, everyone is going to have to do their part and follow the new rules.

The good news is the athletes I have talked to and those who have spoken up publicly all say they’re willing to make any sacrifice necessary if it means getting to play. After missing out on the entire spring season, they understand better than anyone what’s at stake if anything goes wrong, so for their sake everyone needs to do their part, and hopefully in a couple of months we can celebrate a successful season and not look back on what could have been.

Have any other questions about the fall season? Mac Cerullo can be reached at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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