When news broke on Wednesday night of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference coming to a decision to move forward with its fall sports plan, many expected to tune into Thursday morning’s press conference and hear something resembling a concrete declaration that the fall sports season was indeed happening.
Since releasing its initial plan for the season in late July, which included a two-week delay in start time, Connecticut high school sports coaches and student-athletes have seen their fall sports season put in jeopardy by certain recommendations from the Department of Public Health, which included limiting football to 7-on-7 and moving girls volleyball outdoors, then saw the season paused entirely for a week only to be resumed on Monday. Each update from the CIAC has brought more uncertainty as the organization tries to get a grasp on the Covid-19 outlook in Connecticut.
“You get an update, and there's a lot of questions that go into each one,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said earlier this week. “That's how it's been. As coaches and players, we haven't had all of the questions answered. But there's a lot that goes into it and they're working very hard. There are a lot of decisions to be made, but a lot of questions that come with each one. We hope those can get answered and we could move forward with the best interests of our student-athletes in mind.”
Many hoped those questions would be answered on Thursday, but instead, the CIAC once again reinforced the fluidity of its plan, and that while the current outlook is to begin the fall sports season on Oct. 1, that could change dramatically in the coming weeks.
It’s a frustrating position for coaches and players, but at this point, given the circumstances, it is likely the best the CIAC can do at this point.
One revelation CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini made on Thursday was the likelihood that should DPH stand pat with some of its recommendations, which they appear to be at this time, public schools under the CIAC umbrella would likely have to go along with those guidelines. So while the current plan is to have 11-on-11 football and indoor girls volleyball (with the hope that the Covid outlook by the time the season starts satisfies such a season in the eyes of DPH), the CIAC can do little more but bide its time and hope that DPH changes its recommendation should the metrics in the state continue to improve.
“We want our message to be very clear that we are listening to the recommendations that are coming from DPH and are aligning in many ways with those recommendations, and we have many questions that we want to be explored,” Lungarini said.
The biggest obstacle standing between the CIAC and the ability to declare a fall season with more certainty is the upcoming reopening of Connecticut schools. While Lungarini spoke about inconsistencies with DPH recommendations between high school and youth or club sports competition, he also stressed that the two organizations are in agreement that a fall sports season cannot happen until both can get a sense of how students returning to school affects the Covid numbers in the state. In the eyes of the CIAC and DPH, it’s hard to gauge the possibility of safely executing a fall sports season until both groups can get a sense of how students returning to classrooms together affects the outlook of the state as a whole, which Lungarini stressed at Thursday’s press conference, including the realization that should in-person learning lead to a rise in case numbers and eventually be deemed unsafe, a fall sports season will not be able to happen.
“If we get to a level that is the hybrid level, where only hybrid is allowed, then at that level we believe activities should be restricted to low-risk, cohorted and outdoor activities,” Lungarini explained. “If it goes to the red level, that distance learning level...then we would stop sports activities at that time.”
Some local coaches, including New Britain girls volleyball head coach Michelle Abraham, would have liked to have seen a delay until spring, as did the CIAC’s football committee, which voted to recommend that the football season be moved to spring. But the CIAC unanimously voted against it and decided there would be no fall sports in the spring, which raised more uncertainty on the outlook of fall sports happening at all in this academic year, but to the CIAC, it was a necessary decision that removed an option it already believed wouldn’t be possible.
“As we move into winter and spring, it's anticipated that there will be an uptick in Covid metrics, as we move indoors,” Lungarini said. “Talking with medical experts and DPH, it's anticipated when we get larger groups indoors, it's likely you will see an uptick...the metrics may never be as good as they are right now. Now might be the only opportunity to provide kids with this experience. We are giving the time for our kids to get back on campus while under low-risk activities, and then taking a deliberate look to see if there is any impact to the Covid metrics, and at that point we'll decide if it's appropriate to move to moderate and then high-risk activities. In doing so, we feel we align with DPH's recommendations right now.”
As large groups move indoors when school returns, will that impact fall sports beginning in October? The CIAC is taking its time to figure that out, and while that has led to frustration among players, including some who protested outside the CIAC offices last week, it may be the only option right now. Back in March, quick action was needed when the CIAC canceled winter state tournaments when Covid first began to spread throughout the state and the country, and after that led to protesting, it eventually gave way to understanding. Maybe this situation will too, but the CIAC and everyone involved in fall sports can only wait and see.