After a protracted back-and-forth with state health officials, Connecticut’s governing body of high school sports will go ahead with a fall season.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health recently recommended that girls volleyball be played outdoors and that football shift to a less-contact, 7-on-7 format in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among high school athletes. But for now, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference will continue with its traditional fall sports offering in a truncated window beginning Oct. 1.
CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said his organization is listening to the recommendations from state public health officials, but questions remain.
“We still have some questions and we still have some areas that we feel need to be explored as we go forward, and as we do that, we are aligning with those recommendations until we can get that further clarification and information and make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Lungarini believes DPH is holding his group, composed mostly of public schools, to a different standard than private clubs that sponsor athletic programs, and he wants the department to clarify its position on all players in the local sports landscape.
The wrangling between the CIAC and DPH over the past two weeks left students -- and their parents -- wondering whether a season would even take place.
Heather Stannard has been fighting through frustration to advocate for her two kids, Lucas and Mason. She hopes they’ll make it onto the gridiron to play out their freshman and senior football seasons for Torrington High School.
“One day they can participate, the next day they can’t,” Stannard said.
To reduce her family’s risk of exposure to COVID-19, she said they avoided taking any trips this summer. She and a group of other football parents have lobbied the local board of education to gain support for playing during the pandemic.
“Mentally, it’s draining for these boys. They just want to go out and play,” Stannard said.
She’s also worried that without football, kids could get into trouble.
The team’s coach told players earlier in the summer to prepare as if there would be a season, but he noted there was no guarantee games would be played. Stannard remembers the impact those words had on her son Lucas.
“You could tell that it really bothered him,” Stannard said. “He’s worked so hard all these years for him to not be able to play his senior year.”
Tony DiDomizio is also the parent of a senior. His son Nicholas plays football for Cheshire High School.
“Senior year’s special, especially when you’re a captain,” DiDomizio said. “We’ve had our ups and downs. We’ve discussed it, tried to look at it from every angle -- it just seems that at some point, they’re being toyed with.”
Both DiDomizio and Stannard say they’re confident in the steps their schools’ football programs are taking to protect players from COVID-19. Following guidance from DPH, Lungarini said school teams will adhere to “low-risk” workouts broken into two 30-minute sessions. One is conditioning, the other is noncontact sports-specific skill work.
Connecticut Public Radio requested an interview with acting DPH Commissioner Deidre Gifford, but a department spokesman instead provided a statement.
“We gave them our recommendations and the decision on how to proceed is up to the CIAC and the individual school districts,” DPH spokesman Av Harris said. “DPH is happy to be a resource and a partner as needed.”
In a previous request for comment, Harris presented a letter signed by Gifford dated Aug. 23, 2020, that was sent to CIAC leadership.
“DPH’s recommendations do not reflect a need to abandon the idea of having any fall interscholastic athletic activities this year,” reads the letter signed by Gifford. “Based on the available science related to the spread of the novel coronavirus, we believe that certain sports and activities have more potential to be conducive to the spread of COVID-19.”
The Aug. 23 letter from DPH spelled out its position on indoor volleyball and 11-on-11 tackle football, saying that switching to outdoor girls volleyball and 7-on-7 football would shift the sports into a “moderate risk” category. Other recommendations from DPH included keeping conditioning-related activities outdoors and reducing conditioning/practice cohort size to 10 students from 15.
On Thursday, Lungarini, the CIAC executive director, said sports committees would continue to find ways to lessen the risk of athletes participating in indoor volleyball and football activities. But for now they’ll move forward, as long as the infection rates among Connecticut citizens remain low.
For his part, DiDomizio has been so impressed with what’s happening at Cheshire that he thinks other teams should copy it.
“They are going to be wearing masks unless they’re actually involved in some sort of activity, but just conditioning, they will still have their mask on,” DiDomizio said. “They are not sharing rides. There’s no locker rooms -- they can’t congregate.”
Football teams will play six games. Other fall sports -- boys soccer, cross country, field hockey, girls soccer and girls volleyball -- will consist of 12 contests.