The initial phase for the return of prep sports issued recently by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) calls for football practices with no more than 10 people in each workout and without the use of shared footballs. The Colorado High School Activities Association has a task force that will set its own guidelines for the safest return to prep competition in the coronavirus pandemic, which will begin formulating its plans June 1. Regardless, high school sports will look a lot different when they return. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

A football practice with no footballs or hitting.

Wrestling with no contact and tennis played against walls.

Cross country races with six feet in between runners.

All these and many more things would strikingly change the look of high school sports — at least initially — if they are to return in the fall according to newly-released recommendations from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

The Sentinel took a detailed, deep dive into the myriad challenges to education alone, but athletics has its own challenging labyrinth to navigate a safe path in response to something that ended the 2019-20 winter prep season prematurely and wiped out the entire spring season.

The NFHS — whose rules are followed by Colorado and most other state high school governing bodies around the country — gathered its 15-member Sports Medicine Advisory Committee of medical doctors, certified trainers, high school coaches and officials, research specialists and state high school association executives to help create a direction in response to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a large document sent out to its membership this week, the NFHS recommended a “staged” approach to opening high school athletics and activities — with states to coordinate with their various state and local health departments for exact dates — and the first phase is a doozy.

On top of recommended frequent and thorough cleaning of high-traffic surfaces, athletes and coaches would be screened prior to workouts for signs of COVID-19, groups limited to 10 or fewer with six-foot social distancing observed at all times. No shared balls, equipment or water bottles, no use of locker rooms and wearing face coverings in less-strenuous sports are part of the initial scenario.

“Talking with ADs, I think everything is on the table as far as what this will look like,” Cherry Creek Schools Athletic Director Larry Bull told the Sentinel. “Pick whatever number you want, but there are at least 100 balls up in the air. Eligibility, school, transportation, officials. It’s a very complex conversation with a lot of unknowns.

“The thing we need to be realistic about is that I love sports — and I don’t want to say sports are secondary — but schools need to figure out how we are going to get kids educated, first.”

Phase 2 in NFHS’ plan is when things would begin to get closer to usual, with up to 50 participants allowed in one place for outdoor workouts and competition allowed for sports the organization has classified as “lower risk” for virus transmission — a list including golf and non-contact individual events.

The next phase would include competition for moderate risk, seemingly the largest classification of sports (see table below), with higher risk (football, wrestling, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer, dance) coming last in their usual form.

Colorado schools should get a clearer picture after June 1, with the arrival of the decisions and recommendations to come from the Colorado High School Activities Association’s self-dubbed “Resocialization to Activities” Task Force, which Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green announced in a letter to its member schools May 15.

“We anticipate that there will be challenges and difficult decisions in our future that will require collaborative leadership as we work to return to the classroom and interscholastic activities,” Blanford-Green’s letter read.

“Even in our world of unknowns, what we do know, is that the social, financial and operational effects of this global pandemic will temporarily alter how we conduct business,” she added. “There isn’t a prescribed script. If positively embraced, the opportunities to think outside the box and emerge as better servant-leaders are endless.”

Blanford-Green announced May 22 the lifting of a moratorium against in-person conditioning sessions between coaches and high school participants on June 1.

CHSAA leaves the other athletic decisions to respective school districts over the summer. Bull said Cherry Creek Schools will keep district facilities closed until July 1, roughly the same date that Aurora Public Schools AD Casey Powell has set for athletic facilities in his district.

Powell is currently part of a team exploring how prep sports can return safely and can see a path to play in some form should the pandemic not flare further with the opening up of things around Colorado.

In the immediate future, it would mean staggered practice times, social distancing and consistent application of both for indoor and outdoor sports in the district.

“I’m holding out optimism that we will,” Powell said of the prospect of sports returning in the fall. “I really hope that we can, but we’re going to have to have a pretty stark turnaround in the way things are going right now.”

Powell’s primary feeling is that any athletic contests that will be held — at least at first — will do so without spectators at fields or in stadiums, a model that the professional sports that have returned (NASCAR, PGA golf) have adopted.

Contests would be streamed online with greater frequency and accessibility, which Powell is ready to accomplish as he has pushed the district forward in terms of technology since he took over the job two years ago.

APS high school gymnasiums and APS Stadium at Hinkley High School already have mounted cameras to stream games remotely, as do facilities in Cherry Creek Schools.

“The good news is we’re not starting from scratch on the technology,” Powell said.

Careful consideration will be taken with each and every step of potentially bringing sports back, though everybody knows that things can change and have changed on a daily basis for the past two months.

“Everybody wants sports back, so if there was a magic wand that could make all of this happen safely, we would find a way to find that magic wand and get it done,” Bull said. “Everybody wants sports. We have a group that is going to make the best decisions with safety in mind to get them back.”

Hanging over everything — athletics included — is the massive budget cuts that will touch all corners of the state for the upcoming school year and at least the next one as well.

What might get cut, from personnel to programs, is yet to be determined.

“As soon as we get programs up and started, every department is going to take a huge hit around the state this year,” Powell said. “It’s going to be a heavy climb.”

On the positive side, Bull has been floored by the way the kids in the Cherry Creek district — and everywhere else — especially the seniors, have put things into perspective.

“The kids I’ve interacted with have been unbelievably awesome and understanding,” he said. “Picture this, you just won a game and Saturday night you’re supposed to play in the championship game and on Thursday you hear it got canceled? It hurts and it stinks, but they’ve accepted it and dealt with it.

“Kids have been awesome in this situation, small schools and big schools and nationwide, our kids have been great and from the stuff I’ve seen, the kids get it. They don’t like it, but they are trying to make a positive out of something that is negative.”

Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports

CLASSIFICATIONS OF SPORTS/ACTIVITIES BY RISK PER NFHS

Low risk (sports that can be done with social distancing with individually or no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors): Individual running events, throwing events (discus, shot put), individual swimming, golf, weightlifting, alpine skiing, sideline cheer, single sculling, cross country running (with staggered starts)

Moderate risk (sports that involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that my reduce the likelihood or respiratory particle transmission between participants OR intermittent close contact OR group sports OR sports that use equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants): basketball, volleyball*, baseball*, softball*, soccer, water polo, gymnastics (if equipment can’t be sufficiently cleaned between competitors), ice hockey, field hockey, tennis*, swimming relays, pole vault*, high jump*, long jump*, girls lacrosse, crew with two or more rowers in shell, 7 on 7 football; * — Could potentially be considered “Low Risk” with appropriate cleaning of equipment and use of masks by participants

Higher risk (sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles well be transmitted between participants): wrestling, football, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer, dance