Rules are out for how fall sports should be run because of the pandemic

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The rules and guidelines are now out for how fall sports should be conducted this year, and the changes will impact everyone from athletes, to coaches, to spectators in the stands.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association released guidance on Aug. 28 about sports modifications, in conjunction with health guidelines released by the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). It was the MIAA's COVID-19 Task Force that approved the modifications for all sports in the commonwealth this fall.

The guidelines provided start out broad, before breaking down into individual sports. The board modifications touch on practices, game sites, locker rooms, and more.

Per the guidelines, prior to any practice or game the athletes and coaches for a school should check their temperatures. If someone has a temperature 100 degrees or above, they should not practice or attend games. For students with symptoms who test negative for COVID-19, can return to the sport once they "are approved to return to school (when afebrile for 24 hours and symptomatically improved)."

Athletes or coaches who are diagnosed with COVID-19, may return to school once they "have been afebrile [without a fever] for 24 hours and with improvement in respiratory symptoms, and once ten days have passed since symptoms first appeared." In addition, the modifications state that "persons with COVID-19 infection need to receive written clearance from their health care provider in order to return to sport."

Any athlete or coach exposed to COVID-19 "should not participate in practices or games until their 14-day quarantine is completed."

Once at practice, coaches are responsible for ensuring social distancing is maintained as much as possible, including creating additional spacing between athletes while stretching or changing drills. Workouts "should be conducted in 'pods' of athletes, with the same 5-10 athletes always working out together" in order to limit potential exposure to coronavirus.

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Locker rooms are allowed to be opened, but should be limited to 50-percent capacity. But, when possible, the MIAA is recommending that "students should report to workouts in proper gear and immediately return home to shower, clean clothing, and equipment at the end of every workout."

The MIAA is recommending that only essential personnel are permitted at practice sites or courses. Essential personnel are defined as "athletes, coaches, medical personnel/athletic trainers, and officials (competitions)." Everyone else is considered non-essential, including media members.

Huddles are also discouraged under the distancing guidelines. Instead, social distancing should be maintained as much as possible, and face coverings utilized when a coach is communicationg with the entire team, or in smaller groups.

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Team handshakes will also be absent this year. The MIAA said that "athletes shall NOT exchange handshakes before, during or following practices and competitions."

Spectators are allowed at events, but must practice social distancing between different household units. The number of spectators is determined "in compliance with EEA, DESE and DPH guidelines."

When it comes time to practice or compete, athletes are required to wear cloth face coverings/masks "per EEA guidelines," and gaiters are acceptable. Individual sports modifications further clarify the mask rule. If an individual cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition or disability, the coach must possess the medical documentation excusing the player from wearing a mask.

Coaches and officials are also required to wear face coverings, but can remove the covering briefly "for a 'break' at any point during practice/competition when they are sociall distanced greater than 6 feet." Spectators, meanwhile, are required to wear face coverings and are expected to follow social distancing guidelines.

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Coaches are also being asked to help athletes break old habits to help minimize the spread of the virus. "Spitting and nose clearing on the course during practices and competitions is not permitted," the guidelines say.

The MIAA is also emphasizing cutting down on interactions with officials or across teams. Coaches must follow social distancing guidelines when interacting with an official, and "athletes should not approach an official closer than 6 feet at any time."

The distancing also extends to pre-game introductions. If pre-game meetings are necessary, the MIAA is asking schools to limit team representation as much as possible, and requiring face coverings during the meetings. The MIAA is suggesting limiting or eliminating pregame introductions, but did note that "the National Anthem may be played before competition."

There should also be no shared athletic equipment, and any equipment that is used for practice should "be cleaned and disinfected prior to and immediately following practice." Per the guidance, only one individual should handle the set-up and break-down of practice equipment on a given day.

The MIAA is recommending that all students bring their own water bottles, and that water bottles cannot be shared. Hydration stations (water cows, troughs, fountains, etc.) should not be utilized at all, per the MIAA. Water fountains are to be used as refill stations only.

Finally, the MIAA laid out a recommendation for schools to designate a coach as a "COVID-19 Coach," or the person responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns. The coach would train coaches, officials and staff on safety protocols, conduct virtual training, and ensure that social distancing is maintained during training. All coaches, staff, officials and families tied to the program should know who the person is.


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