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Municipal Spotlight: State Provides Guidelines for Interscholastic Sports to Move Forward

Aug 27, 2020 06:00AM ● By Kenneth Hamwey

Bellingham School Superintendent Peter Marano

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued its guidelines as the Bulletin was going to press. Sports for the fall season that are in the lower- and moderate-risk categories can compete with modifications, but football, competitive cheer and unified basketball are classified as high risk. Those teams can hold practice only this fall, but their seasons could get underway in a “floating season” that would run from February 22 to April 25.

The question that Bellingham parents, student-athletes and town-wide fans of interscholastic sports would like answered is what athletics will look like if they’re on the menu when the community’s schools open on Sept. 15.

At Bulletin deadline, neither Governor Baker nor the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) had yet to rule on the status of fall sports, but guidelines for youth and amateur athletics were announced by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) on Aug. 13. Because of Covid-19, high school sports were canceled on March 12 and have yet to resume.

Once the DESE offers its guidelines, those specifics will provide the Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) with additional insight. To prepare for a fall season, the MIAA’s Covid-19 Task Force will have to consider modifications for moderate- and high-risk sports to allow for competition.

Bellingham School Superintendent Peter Marano is awaiting guidance from the DESE before he issues any statement or comment. However, he did indicate that the EEA offered   commonsense guidelines; and, if the DESE adopts similar guidance, then “we’ll follow through and honor those rules for our coaches and student athletes.”

Here is a brief rundown on what the EEA spelled out: the guidance classifies sports into three categories—Lower Risk, Moderate Risk and Higher Risk. For the fall, Lower Risk sports include golf and cross country. Moderate Risk fall sports are volleyball, field hockey and soccer. Higher Risk fall sports are football and competitive cheerleading.

Moderate Risk sports are listed as “sports or activities that involve intermittent close proximity or limited, incidental physical contact between participants.” Higher Risk sports are listed as “sports or activities for which there is a requirement or a substantial likelihood of routine close and/or sustained proximity or deliberate physical contact between participants and a high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.”

The EEA guidance lists four levels of play. Level 1 is individual or socially distanced activities; Level 2 is competitive practices; Level 3 is games; and Level 4 is tournaments.

Lower Risk sports get the green light to participate in all four levels. That would enable golf and cross country to compete and hold tournaments. Moderate and High Risk sports can participate only in Level 1, which translates to no practices, games or tournaments. Those restrictions would be lifted if the sports meet “minimum mandatory standards for modification to play.”

If football is played this fall, games would have to eliminate contact by replacing tackling with flags or playing a two-hand touch in a seven-on-seven format. Two options could be the creation of an additional season between winter and spring sports or playing football next spring.

Recent decisions by high-profile college football conferences to cancel their seasons are, however, indications that Marano thinks could be telling. “It makes me wonder if we’ll have football when major colleges are calling off their seasons left and right,” Marano said. “I’d like to see some sports on the calendar, like golf and cross-country, which have built-in distancing. Athletics are a healthy extra-curricular activity, and it would be great to see sports conducted in a safe and healthy way on a limited basis.”

If athletics are approved, teams could begin practice on Sept. 18, but there will be changes.  Marano is sure that alterations will be implemented and that they’ll be enforced.

“Masks and social distancing will be required on the benches,” he said. “Hand-sanitizing stations will be available at practices and games, and locker-rooms, training rooms and weight rooms will have limited numbers and will be sanitized between usages. Visiting the trainer’s room may be by appointment only, and post-game handshakes will be prohibited.

“Buses transporting teams will follow the state’s guidelines­­—one-third capacity. Instead of 70 passengers, it would be 23. Multiple buses may be needed or multiple runs. If game times change, then parents might be able to transport their child. But a lot depends on the opposing school.”

Marano said that his athletic department is encouraging communication among coaches, players and the trainer. “The Tri Valley League’s athletic directors have been meeting continually and drawing up schedules that plan for a limited number of games and also schedules that call for no non-league games,” he noted. “Scheduling is the top priority as we await a decision.”

 As for the slow pace of decision-making by the DESE and the MIAA, Marano said, “It’s frustrating awaiting guidance documents at the local level, but I can understand that they (DESE and MIAA) have to be thoughtful in their judgments. Everyone needs to take a breath, be patient and wait for the DESE/MIAA guidelines to be announced.”

The choices to open schools were full in-person classes, full remote or a hybrid approach.
Marano initially preferred in-person classes, but that all changed when the Department of Education issued its busing guidelines. Those details mandate a maximum of 23 students, which is 33 percent capacity. Previously buses transported as many as 70 students.
“The guidance from the Department of Education on busing, along with surveys that we completed with staff and parents, the six-foot distancing in classrooms and other health and safety protocols led us to a hybrid approach,” he said. “This model will have students divided into two groups. Group A would attend classes in person on Monday and Tuesday while Group B would be remote. The groups would switch on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be a full remote day for all students.”

Marano said the model will allow for teacher planning, office hours and asynchronous learning to occur. He also noted that administrators will continue to monitor the metrics of the virus in Bellingham and the state and that plans will be adjusted accordingly. “The No. 1 goal is to keep our students and staff as safe as possible during these unprecedented times,” he said.
The busing edict and staying with the six-foot distancing rule, instead of the 3-6 feet state mandate, convinced Marano to employ the hybrid model. “We could move from hybrid to all-in if the data in Bellingham is favorable and if the busing regulation is lightened,” Marano said. “And the six-foot distance would have to change. We submitted the hybrid plan and should get approval soon.”

Parents can opt out of the hybrid model and request 100 percent remote learning. However, there are limits to making alterations.

“I told families we’ll make changes for them,” Marano said. “If a family wants to go from remote back to hybrid, it’ll take five days to implement the change. The delay occurs because we need to determine where to place a child and to honor all health and safety protocols. We will not allow multiple switching unless there are extenuating circumstances.”
There will be continual sanitization of all school buildings on a daily basis with an extensive cleaning on Wednesdays (all-remote day).

Lunches will be served in the cafeteria because social distancing will be ensured. “It’s important for the kids to dine in the cafeteria,” Marano said.

Air ventilation gets high marks. “All indoor filters have been changed and outside air dampers have been inspected,” Marano noted. “They’re in good working order and they’re clean.”
The makeup for the hybrid model is being developed. Students will know whether they’re in Group A or Group B.

Added technology has been purchased. “Chromebooks, Chromepads and Hotspots (portable Wi-Fi devices) have been added to allow students to connect to the internet from home,” Marano said.
Hand sanitizing dispensers have been installed in every classroom in all five schools. “We also installed added hand-washing stations at the middle school and high school,” Marano said. “Also, water-bottle filling stations have been installed in all school buildings.”
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