AHSAA details ‘Return to Play Best Practices’ document

AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese detailed the association’s ‘Best Practices” document for the upcoming season at a press conference Thursday. (Martha Needham/The Cullman Tribune)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Ever since the coronavirus pandemic brought an early end to school and spring sports back in March, we’ve been anxiously awaiting information about the upcoming football season. Wednesday finally brought some of the answers we wanted when the AHSAA’s Central Board approved a plan to kick off fall sports on time.

Fall sports teams have the option to begin fall workouts on July 27 with the first week used by football for acclimation purposes only with helmets and shorts only. The other fall sports – volleyball, cross country and swimming and diving – can use the first week for acclimation and tryouts. Schools not choosing that option may start fall practice on August 3. The first varsity contest date is set for August 20.

AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese held a press conference Thursday to elaborate further on some of the steps the association will be taking to help keep student athletes as safe as possible this fall. He and Assistant Director Denise Ainsworth touched on a long list of topics regarding the fall sports season and the guidelines being put in place. Savarese got things started by making it clear these decisions are based on the most current information available and things could change if that information changes.

“I want to thank everyone for their patience and understanding as we deal with this unprecedented health issue. Please note that this information is current, but if we receive new information from the department of public health, as well as any state executive orders, sports can change almost immediately,” Savarese said. “Interscholastic activities as well as our ‘Best Practices’ document are fluid and could change with the addition of new health information. Our medical advisory board and our central board of control will continue to analyze new health information as released by the department of public health, the state department of education as well as public officials.”

Savarese continued,

“In June, by order of the Governor, athletics was allowed to resume as our students began practicing and playing on non-school teams throughout the summer. Yesterday, the central board of control approved our member schools ‘Best Practices’ document as our schools prepare to begin their falls sports seasons. With schools reopening with three different platforms of education; traditional, blended and virtual or remote learning, these best practices are provided to mitigate the exposure of COVID 19 and that was a priority of the board, but please know, these best practices will not eliminate the risks, only mitigate them.”

Parents making the decision for their children

“Parents will now have options not only on how they educate their children, but as always, parents must make a personal choice as to whether they will allow their children to participate in extracurricular activities. Unless health officials shut down schools as well as all outside activities, the choice will remain with the parents,” Savarese said. “Regardless of your position with the virus and sports, to return or not to return to school, your perspective is right. There’s no wrong position. But, the choice to participate must remain with the parents.”

Providing schools flexibility during an unusual season

“Everyone should understand that sports this season will not be normal. Our board has provided schools with the flexibility to either play or to not play without penalty and to allow school officials to use their judgement based on the latest available health information for their specific region of the state,” Savarese said. “We understand schools may have to start and stop, delay and play at a later date, schedule and reschedule but schools will have the autonomy to decide when to allow their teams to participate. As we all realize, there is not a one size fits all solution to this health conundrum. But I am thankful to the board for providing the flexibility necessary for students to have some semblance of fall activities.”

Thanking the coaches for their commitment throughout the summer

“Since June 4 our schools in all sports have been practicing and I want to especially thank our administrators and coaches for providing an environment that is as safe as possible,” Savarese said. “In watching our world’s reaction to this virus since March, I wish everyone had the commitment of our educators, especially our coaches and their commitment to mitigate the virus and do their part to protect others. Their love and dedication to our students has never been more evident.”

Governor Ivey and the mask ordinance

“I’m also thankful to our Governor Kay Ivey for providing a mask order. As we can all learn from the Mayor of Montgomery Steven Reed, who had the courage to issue a mask order five weeks ago that has resulted in Montgomery’s COVID 19 cases being cut in half,” Savarese said. “It’s all simple if we all do our part and make the necessary sacrifices to protect others. This virus may not go away but it will enable us to learn how to live with the virus.”

Assistant Director Denise Ainsworth on the ‘Best Practices’ document

“This document that we have created is not a final document. It is going to be a very fluid document that will be updated constantly by insight from the Alabama Department of Public Health and other governing officials as well as research. We have done a lot of research preparing for this so we hope you all realize that and realize that we will continue doing that research.”

Staying educated and aware of all the latest information

“Education throughout this pandemic has been very important. School administrators and coaches must stay abreast and current with the guidelines from all the governing bodies that we mentioned earlier. They must continue to mitigate the risk for the spread of this virus. We have been doing this throughout the summer and the way to do that is to practice the mitigation processes that you’ve heard about for four months. Wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing and clean,” Ainsworth said. “Coaches are going to constantly stress to their athletes how important what they do away from school is. We’ve managed things pretty well at the schools this summer, but it is important that athletes practice these same mitigation techniques with their families and friends when they’re away from the school.

Some of this year’s rule modifications for fall sports

“Rule modifications by the national federation have been implemented and will be made available online. These rule modifications are to allow for social distancing, etc. In the fall sport of cross country they are suggesting that the course be widened to at least six feet where feasible. With volleyball, we’re going to suspend the protocol of changing benches, we’re going to move the pre-match conference to center court and we’re only going to bring the head coaches to that and no longer bring the captains. We’re going to limit the number of people who sit at the official’s table,” Ainsworth said. “As for swimming and diving, we’re going to require athletes to arrive at the venue already in their competitive attire if social distancing is not available in the locker rooms. We’re going to reduce the number of people at the pre-meet conference and we’re going to require all takeoff judging to be done from the sides of the pool to allow social distance between the judges. In football, they’re going to extend the players box from the 10-yard line to the 10-yard line. Note that is the players box, they’re not extending the coaches box. Charged timeouts will be extended to two minutes to allow for social distancing to occur, for individual water bottles to be handed out and only one captain from each team will be present at the coin toss.”

Teams have the option to begin fall practice Monday, July 27 or later

“Schools have an option to begin fall practice on July 27. That week is an acclamation week or a tryout week for all of our sports teams. Schools that begin on July 27 must use this week as an acclamation week. They may only be in shorts and helmets during that week and there are no two-a-day practices during this week,” Ainsworth said. “Teams may choose to start later, the original start date for practice was August 3 and they may choose to start then. They may also choose to start later if that fits their needs best. They must have 13 days of practice before they can compete so that gives them a little leeway in doing that.”

Communication between schools this fall will be more critical than ever

“Communication this year between school principals, coaches and athletic directors is going to be more important and more needed than ever,” Ainsworth said. “You need to communicate ahead of time regarding whether or not you have room in your locker rooms, is your city under a mask ordinance, etc. So, those things regarding COVID 19 will need to be communicated as early as possible to allow everyone to compete easily.”

Giving autonomy to local schools and what happens in the event of a forfeit

“Local schools have the autonomy to return to school as they choose, whether that is a virtual model, a blended model or a traditional model and still be able to participate in athletics. This is to give schools the choice. We have not regulated regular season play; we only govern championship play, so the schools still have the autonomy to make those choices. We want to give kids the opportunity to play regardless of the model the school has chosen. If schools must miss a game, that game will be forfeited,” Ainsworth said. “However, our central board of control will evaluate those forfeitures at the end of the season as to how it relates to their regular season record and to look at championship play to decide who will be where. If a school is unable to participate in a contest, the local superintendent must notify the AHSAA Executive Director in writing. Contingency plans have been developed and our central board of control will be reviewing those documents in October.”

Any fan restriction policies will be left up to local schools

“If fan restrictions are in place at a local school, equal access for visiting fans must be provided. Local school systems decide the number of fans in the stadium. We hope they will look at the ADPH and what they’re recommending. We think they will come out with some specifics a little later but local school systems decide fan attendance and who is allowed,” Ainsworth said. “We would encourage to call ahead before games and find out those procedures. Just remember that if fan restrictions are in place, equal access must be allowed for the visiting team.”

Specific policies on transportation will be left up to local school boards

“Transportation and how students are transported from one venue to another for a game is up to the local school board. They decide whether or not they will allow personal automobiles or school buses. We would encourage wearing a mask on a bus obviously and we would also encourage assigned seating on a bus so that if contact tracing was needed at some point, it would be easy to find out who was within six feet of that other student,” Ainsworth said. “It is the host school’s responsibility to provide a clean environment for all visiting teams to dress and have their pre-game meetings in. When possible, the area should be large enough to maintain social distancing.”

The AHSAA recommends screening any “Game day personnel” attending events

“Game day personnel are considered anyone facilitating or having a role in the production of a game. This includes your chain crew, concession workers, media etc.,” Ainsworth said. “We would suggest they be screened before coming into contact with people at the game, but that screening process will be left up to the local schools. Local schools have been screening all summer, so they have a process in place.”

Making room for bands and cheerleaders

“Fan requirements as we said earlier will be up to the schools, but we have had lots of questions about bands and cheerleaders. We realize those student athletes work very hard all summer long so we would encourage the local school administration to prioritize the band and cheerleader’s presence and then work the fans in after that,” Ainsworth said. “Again though, it is local school policy and there will need to be some accommodations made with the new rules regarding the players box. Where you are normally cheering may have to change or where the media has been may have to change but we know that all of you are willing to be flexible as we work through these difficult times.”

Savarese on officials and coaches wearing masks

“We highly encourage our officials to wear masks, as well as our coaches, as well as our students on the sideline who aren’t in the game. We are highly suggesting our coaches wear masks on the sideline. Our coaches have done a great job all summer long.”

Working with schools during unprecedented times to play as much as possible

“If a school cannot play, they must notify us in writing. They will forfeit the game and there will be no penalties. If they can find a way to play at a later date, we will work with them. These are unprecedented health times and we have to be more understanding, more flexible and look for ways to work with our schools to allow our students to participate,” Savarese said. “If we could get in five games or eight games, nobody knows what tomorrow holds. That’s why we’re beginning when we’re beginning, because we don’t know what October or November holds. But hopefully, we can get our games in, allowing our students to have, if not their entire season, at least a portion of their season.”

The possibility of moving fall sports to the spring

“Many of you have asked me about moving our fall sports to the spring. As I explained to our board yesterday, what happened to our spring sports last spring will hopefully never happen again,” Savarese said. “To move our spring sports to the fall where they may not have a season and jeopardize that season would be unconscionable right now and we are not going to do that. Our kids will hopefully have a normal spring season, I pray they do. We will have fall sports in the fall for as much of a season as possible not knowing what the future holds.”

To check out the full documents detailing the rule modifications for each fall sport, you can find them here.


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