While the Kansas State High School Activities Association is set to make a decision on fall sports as early as Tuesday, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), Karissa Niehoff, debriefed media on where the country stands.

As the U.S. deals with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most notable priorities has been the reopening of schools and reintroduction of sports.

“The majority of states will likely see a hybrid model of returning to school,” Niehoff said. “If they’re back on campus, they’re likely to return and engage with activity.” 

As of Monday afternoon, 23 states plus Washington D.C. have delayed fall sports in some fashion. California, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, Washington and D.C. will not have sports in the fall.

“It’s very likely that within a state itself, you’ll see some school districts that are back to activity and some that are not,” Niehoff said. “A couple of models we’re seeing emerge involve a January to June approach for all sports. We’re also seeing a two-season approach and a three-season approach.” 

As other state associations, including KSHSAA, prepare to try and have activities in the fall, the NFHS director is encouraging a phased approach.

“If kids are back on campus, we’ll likely see a phase-in for sports,” Niehoff said. “Close contact sports like football, we’ll likely see a delay. Is it likely we’ll see football played without testing and mitigation? I don’t know.” 

The NFHS also wants state association to take a sport-by-sport approach when facing potential cancellations — sports like tennis could be preserved even if football is shut down.

“The best approach is to take activities one-by-one,” Niehoff said. “I think we can bring activities back sooner that are lower risk. That may be considered best practice.” 

Niehoff also said that schools and associations could hold sports and other activities even if the district opens the year with a distance learning model.

“In places where we can responsibly provide resources to get kids engaged in something that has to do with the life of the school,” Niehoff said, “I think it’s feasible to implement those types of programs without in-person learning…the facilities would need to be safe.” 

Niehoff added that for schools and sports to safely reopen, a low positivity rate of COVID-19 cases would be advisable. The U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, said in a CBS interview on Friday that schools could reopen safely if the community has a positivity rate of less than 10%.

“I would encourage real consideration about what’s going on in your state with regard to the rate of positivity,” Niehoff said. “If you’re looking at one-in-10 versus one-in-100, we have to look at whether or not we have the right procedures to bring kids back.” 

The NFHS also encourages fan attendance for sports as safely as possible.

“We would like to see fans in the stands,” Niehoff said. “All of the things we experience when we go to a grocery store…that’s what schools are looking at when it comes to putting fans in the stands.” 

Niehoff frequently referenced a study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, which found that high school students in Wisconsin suffered higher levels of anxiety and depression as a result of the cancellation of sports this past spring.

“We want to make sure that in our education-based environment, we’re not just paying attention to COVID, but the emotional wellness of our students and why the need to participate in activities,” Niehoff said.

Niehoff also criticized many summer travel sports that revved up in the last few months. In Kansas, five clusters of the pandemic are stemmed from sports. 

“These programs have gotten back to full swing activity,” Niehoff said. “From the NFHS perspective, we felt that it was fast. We wanted a phased-in approach that was very cautious. With education-based environments, there’s a little more control over contact tracing as well as maintenance of facilities.” 

KSHSAA’s Executive Board is scheduled to meet on Tuesday at 4 p.m. where it’s likely that a decision will be made on a start date for fall sports.

“As we watch these decisions emerge, we’ll see a patchwork across the country,” Niehoff said. “One of the things that’s very consistent is that states across the country want kids to be back participating in activities for a number of reasons.” 

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