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SC high schools face 'unknowns' even with national guidelines for return of sports

Stratford players (copy)

Stratford High School football players run sprints near the end of practice in 2018. Rob Gantt/The Independent

Wearing cloth face masks. Checking temperatures before workouts. Maintaining social distancing of 6 feet, and wiping down hard surfaces in locker rooms, weight rooms and training rooms.

And no pre-game and post-game handshakes, high fives or even fist bumps.

These are among the guidelines released by the National Federation of High Schools this week in a report entitled "Guidance for Opening up High School Athletics and Activities."

High school sports in South Carolina have been shut down since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the NFHS guidelines are intended as a road map of sorts as high school sports begin to open back up this summer and fall. There have been more than 9,000 known cases of coronavirus in South Carolina, with more than 400 deaths.

“It is important to be clear that this is guidance for individual states to consider as they return to activities this fall," said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. "States will utilize the guidance in this document as it best fits their state after consulting with local and state health departments.”

The S.C. High School League is using the NFHS guidelines as it prepares its own recommendations, said SCHSL commissioner Jerome Singleton.

"We are currently putting something in place for our schools to follow," Singleton said Wednesday. "Some of what they have in their guidelines, we are taking into consideration. But we have to follow our governor's and state's orders as well."

Singleton said the High School League is still in discussions about the start of the summer period for high schools on June 1.

"We hope to have something for our schools by next week, but that has not been finalized yet," he said.

'Higher risk'

The NFHS guidelines include football as a "higher risk" sport for the spread of coronavirus, along with wrestling, boys lacrosse and competitive cheer. Those sports "involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants," the report said.

"Moderate risk" sports include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, girls lacrosse, tennis, swim relays, 7 on 7 football and the track and field events of pole vault, high jump and long jump. "Lower risk" sports include running and throwing events in track, individual swimming, golf and cross-country running (with staggered starts).

waterbreak goose creek football.jpg (copy)

Goose Creek High School players take a water break before the 2018 season. Wade Spees/Staff

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The advisory recommends a three-phase approach to a return to practice and games, with guidelines covering COVID-19 screening, face coverings, group sizes, showering and dressing, locker room use, equipment cleaning, the sharing of towels and clothes and hydration.

Phase 1 of the guidelines limits gatherings to no more than 10 people, and says workouts should be conducted with the same "pods" of five to 10 students always working out together. Balls should not be passed or handed off among players until phase 2 is reached.

Each player would be required to have his or her own water bottle, and the use of "water cows" and fountains should be disallowed, the guidelines say.

'No answers' 

Brian Smith, athletic director and football coach at C.E. Murray High School in Williamsburg County, says he advocates following the guidelines "to a T."

But he's not certain state schools will have the resources to do so.

"I think we should follow the guidelines," he said. "But I have concerns about having all the equipment we need to follow them. We have to purchase temperature radars, more cleaning equipment. We have to disinfect the locker rooms and weight room every day, and no answers have been offered yet. There are still a lot of unknowns."

Smith pointed out that even the NFHS guidelines don't address what to do if a player tests positive for the coronavirus.

"I don't have any ability to take temperatures," Smith said. "And the guidelines don't take into consideration people who are asymptomatic. There's no guidance on when a player tests positive, and that's the biggest issue of all. Do we shut down a team for a whole month, for 14 days? What do you do when a player tests positive and you know he's been around the team?"

The NFHS report said "response to a student or team member testing positive for COVID-19 (is) currently under review and guidance will come from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and state and local health departments." 

As for games, the NFHS suggested grouping attendees into three tiers: Essential (athletes, coaches, officials), preferred (media) and non-essential (spectators and vendors), depending on when state and local governments lift restrictions on mass gatherings.

"I'm glad the national federation has released some guidance, and I hope the state organization has some, as well," Smith said. "I hope we will take extreme caution and not allow teams to rush back in. What I'm afraid of is that we'll see a rush into it, and then realize people are getting sick, and that's not what we want."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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