CHESHIRE — The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s initial plans to begin winter sports in December has changed as covid-19 cases continue to rise in Connecticut, and a decision announced on Tuesday would push the start of the season back to mid-January.
The CIAC announced that winter sports practices would begin on Jan. 19 in a new plan for the season, pushing the start back more than a month from its typical beginning in mid-December.
CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini pointed to rising covid rates and the increase of Connecticut schools moving to distanced learning as a primary reason for the decision to delay the season further than its initial plan.
“We want our kids to be in classrooms as much as possible for instruction and we want our communities to be safe,” Lungarini said. “The board felt this was a decision that gave clear direction and put the safety of our schools and communities at the forefront.”
The CIAC’s Board of Control met on Tuesday morning before coming to its decision.
“The conversation with the board was centered around the number of schools we’re seeing go to distance learning and seeing more schools lean toward a Jan. 19 date as a return,” Lungarini said. “When you look at the dates New Year’s falls this year, Jan. 4 would be the first Monday after. So, if you follow the two-week standard for looking at covid data, Jan 19 would be standard for a school calendar.”
That Jan. 19 date would be for the start of team practices, not competition. Those dates, including state tournament dates, will be worked out over the coming weeks.
Currently, the Department of Public Health approves the play of moderate-risk indoor sports like basketball and ice hockey, provided athletes wear masks during competition, but the CIAC weighed its decision to delay the season heavily with responses from its member schools. The CIAC surveyed its member schools and collected nearly 100 responses, which showed that 41.1 percent of schools would stop practices and games if they were moved to distanced learning between now and the end of the year. But Lungarini and the CIAC remain hopeful that when schools return in 2021, there will be a chance to begin the winter season soon after, provided that schools are able to stick with in-person learning.
“I think the Jan. 19 date is a very optimistic date just from schools in general,” Lungarini said. “Even schools moving to distanced learning, you’re seeing that date that schools will be back at that time. We’re hopeful at that point to return and get our winter sports started at that time, hopefully all of them, but we’ll have to see where we are with high-risk sports at that point.
“In the tri-state area, we could expect numbers to increase over the next couple of months, and hopefully next year and in the beginning of January we see those numbers go down a bit and we can get back to play at that point. We understand at this point that DPH hasn’t prohibited moderate-risk indoor sports to be played at this point, there are sports being played in Connecticut, but from a CIAC and scholastic perspective, as an education-based experience, we need to look at in-person learning and the impact that rising numbers have had on our schools…that separates how DPH may work with youth and amateur sports outside of interscholastic athletics.”
Wrestling and other high-risk indoor sports have already been ruled out by DPH until the end of the year, and the CIAC will wait to see if those regulations change by Jan. 19, as well as the mitigating strategies for basketball and hockey, and whether those will still need to be implemented come Jan. 19.
The delay of the winter season could also impact the second semester fall season that was put in place for March and April after the football season was canceled, but Lungarini expects dates for that, and the 2021 spring season, to be figured out in the coming weeks. Solidifying the winter sports schedule, however, remains a priority.
“Now that we’ve established Jan. 19 as a start date, the next step will be looking at the calendar to identify when end dates and tournament dates would be,” Lungarini said. “Primarily, we’re looking at winter and spring sports and then football that did not get played in the fall. We’ll keep all of those in consideration over the next couple of weeks to determine when we will play those.”
Lungarini also hopes the delay of the season will help hockey and indoor track teams have more luck in finding venues for the season, as most collegiate venues have shut their doors to outside activities, making scheduling for those sports difficult, as most high schools don’t have hockey rinks or indoor tracks on campus.
“We know a lot of colleges and universities are sending kids home for Thanksgiving break and they’re not coming back,” Lungarini said. “[We’re] looking at the start of the second semester for colleges and universities, to see if things are any different from a covid climate at that point and whether there would be more willingness or if that opportunity would exist to have outside events from the colleges and universities come back to campus.”
The CIAC’s decision comes just days after concluding its shortened fall season, where some leagues, like the NVL, canceled its postseason experience due to covid concerns, and multiple CCC schools were forced to sit out of the playoffs due to quarantine regulations. Resuming competitive high school sports within the next few weeks didn’t seem feasible to the CIAC, which hopes to have an uninterrupted season in 2021 after successfully completing its fall experience, aside from football.
“We played about 7,800 contests in all sports at all levels throughout the fall season…and through the data collection with our member schools, we saw a total of seven positive cases that through local DPH tracing came back to CIAC or school-sanctioned sports or practices,” Lungarini said. “You’re looking at about a 0.022 percent transmission rate. I think our strategies and the work of our athletic directors, and the adherence of our coaches and our athletes was exceptional. We’re very proud and happy that we were able to give that experience to approximately 30,000 kids this fall.”
Now, the attention turns toward winter sports, which was the first group to be affected by covid-19 when all state tournaments were shut down back in March. By the time the CIAC’s anticipated start date arrives, it will have been nearly a year since the winter season was ended due to the first covid outbreak. The plan, as always, can change in the coming weeks and months, but Lungarini hopes the new year will bring a new opportunity to give winter athletes a chance to play and complete what was left unfinished last year.
“I think people understand the seriousness of it, but I think there’s a lot of stress and anxiety to get as much of a normal experience as we can for the kids,” Lungarini said. “You’re always concerned for the kids that lose opportunities. We’ll continue to evaluate as we work through…but right now, this is the date we see within our school communities as the appropriate date for a return and to get it started. Our process will be the same as always moving forward.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org