Colby Ott

Could the look that Jefferson’s Colby Ott is sporting be in fashion at high school football games this fall? At least one coach says it’s not practical to ask football players to practice and play wearing cloth face masks. Guidelines for a return to play are being formulated.

The problem of how to open high school sports in the fall is as difficult to solve as the coronavirus that forced schools to close and all athletics and activities to shut down across the nation this spring.

But the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) on May 19 handed down guidance to its 51 member state associations (including Washington, D.C.) with steps recommended to allow sports to start for the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

The 16-page document is the work of the group’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC), a 15-member panel of medical doctors, certified athletic trainers, high school coaches and officials, research specialists and state high school association executives.

In the document, each state is asked four questions on how they will handle the re-opening of prep sports. There are guidelines on who should wear masks and when and where they should be used. The panel broke down high school sports into three categories based on risk.

Concerning how student-athletes will have the ability to get physicals – usually a prerequisite before any student is allowed to participate in sports – the panel expressed “increasing concern in the ability of students to access primary care providers and obtain the required preparticipation physical evaluation to participate in sports” for the coming school year.

The panel suggested that states “be flexible in their current requirements, while maintaining a balance between student safety, the benefits of athletic participation, and easing the burden on local primary care providers.”

There are three phases to the plan.

The first phase covers pre-workout screenings, limitations on gatherings, cleaning of facilities, proper use of equipment and uniforms and hydration.

The next two phases give further guidance on those topics, but alter them to allow more people to attend games and relax certain restrictions.

For example, in the first two phases, the document suggests that all coaches and students should be screened for signs or symptoms of COVID-19, including a temperature check, before a workout. In the third phase, any person who reports that he or she had a fever or cold symptoms in the previous 24 hours would not be allowed to take part in workouts and should contact a doctor.

In the first two phases, crowds would be limited to 10 people; the third recommends gatherings of no more than 50.

Officials of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) met via video conference May 21 to discuss the report and how Missouri might adopt it.

Jason West, communications director for the state’s governing body for high school athletics, said at this point there are a lot more questions than answers.

That’s because in Missouri some counties have few reported cases of the coronavirus, while its two largest areas, around Kansas City and St. Louis, have thousands of reported cases.

As the MSHSAA board of directors weighs in on how to proceed, it’s likely that directives concerning how high school sports will be conducted during the coming school year will not be a one-size-fits-all scenario.

West said the first thing talked about during his meeting were the four questions the NFHS asked each state:

■ Will your state association conduct an athletics and activities regular season or championship if public schools statewide are closed to in-person learning?

■ Will your state association conduct an athletics and activities regular season or championship if schools are closed only in COVID-19 “hot spots” in your state, excluding participants from schools that are closed?

■ Will your state association conduct an athletics regular season in sports deemed “lower risk” for COVID-19 transmission while canceling activities considered “higher risk?”

■ Are there recommendations unique to your state – or regions of your state – that you need to take into consideration when developing return-to-activity guidelines?

“We want to promote the value of participation,” West said. “Anything we can do to keep kids doing that we want to take a hard and fast look at it. To answer the first question, when you look at this spring when there was a statewide closure, the answer was no. To questions 2 and 3, it would probably be yes.”

West said there are different risk factors for each sport. Missouri might alter the way sports are listed in the three categories.

“We may have a different take on the three categories,” West said. “We’ll be taking a look at each sport and what kind of contact is meant to be in that sport. Obviously, the high-risk sports are football and wrestling because there is a lot of bodily combat and sweating on each other. In baseball and softball, they’re not really contact sports, but there’s the question of proximity. Volleyball isn’t a contact sport, but when you’re at the net you’re within six feet of each other and your teammates on the court.”

There are four scenarios MSHSAA is preparing for, West said:

■ The first one is the one everyone is hoping for, that the fall semester is ready for a normal schedule without restrictions on fans or social distancing.

■ Schools can have activities and games and concerts, but there’s no spectators.

■ Activities take place with a limited number of fans, like at the Class 1-3 basketball finals held in Springfield in March.

■ In the fourth, catastrophic scenario, schools remain closed for in-class learning and COVID-19 cases spike.

One of the biggest sources of disagreement is the use of masks. The national report suggests that state, local or school district guidelines for cloth face coverings be strictly followed while plastic shields covering the entire face should not be allowed.

“Wear a mask if you’re able to,” West said. “If we’re able to have contests, you have to look at the safety of participants and officials. We have to do this not because it’s what MSHSAA says is the right thing, we have to do this for our society.”

It’s hard to imagine a basketball or football game without hearing the shrill sound of a referee blowing into a whistle. But it’s likely there will be a change in how sports are officiated. West said there’s always the likelihood that droplets from a referee’s whistle could land on a player.

The MSHSAA may take action concerning the reopening of activities at its next board meeting on June 17.

“We hope to have a lot of information and get a feel for what the board says,” West said. “The biggest part will be what schools are allowed to do. A lot of counties and local officials are coming out with road maps to reopening. It may be we don’t have to worry about anything.”

That would suit Alex Rouggly just fine.

The Jefferson football head coach has tried to remain optimistic he’ll have his Blue Jays on the field when practice begins in August. Jefferson’s last day of school was May 21.

Rouggly said he read the NFHS report, but had more questions than answers about how to proceed.

“I don’t know how you can make an educated decision on the basis of this document,” Rouggly said. “They didn’t go in-depth enough about why the sports were rated like they were. We need to keep the integrity of the sport (football).”

Rouggly said there’s no way a football player can wear a cloth face mask on the field during a game or practice.

“I don’t I see how you can (wear a mask) while exerting the amount of energy on a football play,” he said. “I think sports like football and wrestling, those are high-exertion sports, and the heart rate is going. In fact, masks will do more damage than good because kids will breathe in their own air. How are they going to do that when it’s 100 degrees outside?”

When school does reopen, Rouggly said there will be more attention than ever in cleaning and sanitizing football equipment and especially in the weight room. Any time a weight station will be used, he said, it will be wiped down thoroughly.

Rouggly said some of his players have not lifted weights for months by the time practice begins. While some students may have weights at their homes, gyms are now open with the restriction on businesses.

“We’ll find out real fast who’s been lifting and who hasn’t,” he said.

Rouggly said the world needs sports and athletics.

“People love and thrive off of competition,” he said. “At some point we have to take steps forward and live our lives. There are ways we’ll figure out how to do this the right way. I can’t fathom living my life in fear.

“Things are going in the right direction to open things back up. It seems like there are fewer and fewer new cases every day, so that’s a good sign. It seems like we’re on the downward part of that curve. The potential negative is reopening and having that second wave occur. There’s so many questions and unknowns.”