Step-by-step process: MHSAA issues, updates guidelines in last week for return to high school sports competition

Head coach Paul Jacobson speaks with his Negaunee High School varsity football players at an end-of-practice huddle adjacent to the Miners’ football field in Negaunee on Aug. 8, 2016. Limited workouts are allowed, though formal practices like this almost certainly couldn’t be held until their traditional time in the first half of August. (Journal file photo by Steve Brownlee)

“The MHSAA and its Representative Council believe restarting school sports is essential to the physical and mental well-being of students.”

— Mark Uyl, executive director, MHSAA


EAST LANSING — The Michigan High School Athletic Association — the governing body for high school sports in the state — has issued and updated guidelines for returning to school sports during the past week.

The MHSAA is made up of more than 1,500 public and private schools in Michigan, including about 750 high schools.

Guidelines were first issued last Friday, then updated Tuesday for high schools, middle schools and junior highs to reintroduce competitive sports that were suspended in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. All winter sports still conducting tournaments, including hockey and boys and girls basketball, had their seasons ended, while spring sports were subsequently suspended. The end of those seasons was made official on April 3.

Head coach Paul Jacobson works with several of his Negaunee High School varsity football players during the first practice of the season adjacent to the Miners' football field in Negaunee on Aug. 8, 2016. (Journal file photo by Steve Brownlee)

Because of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Safer-At-Home order that was originally effective through June 12, no school facilities could be used, indoors or outdoors, until then. That included organized on-site athletic activities, both conditioning and competition, unless the order was lifted or it expired.

Her order was amended on Monday, making for more possible activity, including use of outdoor school facilities.

Return-to-activity recommendations to be implemented locally by school district leaders were issued by the MHSAA in conjunction with the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Sports Medicine Advisory Committees.

“We were excited and encouraged by Gov. Whitmer’s announcements Monday,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said in the Tuesday news release. “The opportunity for outside gatherings of up to 100 allowed us to rework a number of guidelines that we had published (last) Friday as part of the MHSAA/NFHS reopening document.

“Our schools have been cautiously eager to take this long-awaited first step. We will continue to provide updates in accordance with the governor’s directives for reopening the state, always prioritizing safety for all involved in school sports programs.”

First, a district must declare its facilities open to students and staff and its 2019-20 school year must have ended based on its last originally scheduled school day.

Outdoor groups of up to 100 are now allowed with social distancing by Whitmer’s new order, but competition still isn’t allowed at this point. Workouts and practices are allowed, though, with the under-100 limit and physical distancing.

Use of restrooms and other indoor facilities has been strongly discouraged except with proper cleaning and physical distancing.

Balls may be used among groups of participants, but participants should clean such common equipment as permitted and continue to social distance and maintain proper hygiene, including washing hands and not touching their faces.

The MHSAA said on Tuesday that the most accurate answer to the question “What step are schools on?” is Step 2 for outdoor activities — thanks to the ability to have gatherings of up to 100 participants — while indoor activities will start at Step 1 if gatherings of only 10 or fewer are allowed. Guidelines will continue to be updated based on directives from Whitmer’s office.

The 12-page “MHSAA/NFHS Guidance to Re-Opening School Sports” also includes plans and strategies from the state of Michigan, federal government, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

The guidelines recommend a three-step process to return to full athletic participation, each step including five major areas — preworkout-contest screening of athletes and coaches for sickness, limitations on participant numbers who are involved in a gathering, proper cleaning of facilities, use of equipment during activity, and best practices for keeping participants safely hydrated.

The plan also places sports into categories based on the risk for transmitting the virus — low, moderate or high — with these steps adjusted to their level of risk.

“The MHSAA and its Representative Council believe restarting school sports is essential to the physical and mental well-being of students, and the guidelines outlined for schools … provide the ‘how’ for schools to return to athletics when they’ve received the go-ahead from state and county health officials,” Uyl said last week.

“We are thankful for our state government, state education and health departments, our medical partners and the NFHS for their guidance … and we will continue to follow and pass on their recommendations as we prepare our schools to bring back this part of student life that’s been sorely missed.”

When the MHSAA recommendations were issued a week ago, only individual, outdoor recreational activities were allowed athletically, including walking, hiking and running, per a Whitmer executive order.

Voluntary virtual — not in-person — communication and instruction from coaches to any number of students is permitted by the MHSAA in all sports throughout the summer.

Guidelines were aimed to provide direction for schools as they continue to limit potential exposure to respiratory droplets, which has shown to be the primary avenue for transferring coronavirus. Specifically, the MHSAA/NFHS plan addresses social distancing, use of cloth and other face coverings, event scheduling and transportation, and the possibility that schools may have to break from or completely discontinue activity, including competition during the fall or winter, because of new outbreaks.

The original document in full is available from the MHSAA website at https://www.mhsaa.com/Portals/0/Documents/AD%20Forms/Guidance%205-29-20.pdf.

Tuesday’s update is available at https://www.mhsaa.com/Portals/0/Documents/AD%20Forms/MHSAA%20Summer%20Guidance%20Update%201.pdf.

The MHSAA said it will provide further updates online available at https://www.mhsaa.com/coronavirus.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.


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