As the Sept. 1 deadline approaches for the MIAA to take final action on the state’s modified athletics plans for the 2020-21 school year, a few districts and leagues have already made changes to their original plans as the coronavirus pandemic endures throughout Massachusetts.
The Northeastern Conference announced Tuesday that its principals voted 9-0-3 to move all fall sports — originally scheduled to begin on Sept. 18 — to the Fall II period. The Fall II period, which was created to accommodate football, a high-risk sport, is scheduled to run from Feb. 22 to April 25, 2021, after the completion of the winter season.
According to a posting on the Masconomet website by principal Peter Delani, a key reason for the decision was that five of the NEC’s 12 schools — Lynn English and Classical, as well as Peabody, Saugus and Winthrop high schools — are located in cities or towns that are designated in “red” by Mass. Department of Public Health metrics for COVID-19. According to DESE guidance released last week, districts designated as red “must postpone their entire season, including practices, until the floating [Fall II] season later in the year.”
The NEC’s decision left the Danvers girls’ volleyball team, which lost 3-2 in last year’s Division 2 state final, in limbo. The Falcons’ captains had already been holding team conditioning sessions three days a week in anticipation of a September start.
“The tough part as a coach is that most of the girls had already heard [the news],” said Danvers coach George LeVasseur when he told them Tuesday morning. “The captains had the conversation about ‘Should we keep our foot on the gas?’”
And for a team that suffered its only loss last season in that state final, and wouldn’t have a shot at avenging that loss with fall postseason tournaments already eliminated for this season, Tuesday’s news came as another disappointment in a year of so many.
“It’s tough because we have so many kids in so many different places. We have rising juniors and seniors who were just thinking about getting back to that state tournament. Once that view starts to change and their mind-set starts to change and things get pushed out again, and taken away again . . . it’s tough,” LeVasseur said. “And then we have kids who haven’t been introduced to the sport yet … and their season gets pushed back.”
CMass girls’ volleyball on the move too
Other organizations are making similar decisions. Late last week, the Central Mass. Athletic Directors Association’s executive board voted unanimously to move girls’ volleyball for schools in Districts 2 and 3 to the Fall II season. The switch impacts 73 schools, including those in the Mid-Wach League, Southern Worcester County League, Dual Valley Conference, Central Mass. League, and the Colonial Athletic League. Schools in the city of Worcester, which will start the school year remotely, also were affected.
Volleyball is considered a moderate-risk sport by the MIAA.
After the MIAA approved last Wednesday a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education-backed plan to begin the fall season on Sept. 18, the CMADA met to make the switch because Worcester schools will not allow volleyball players in their buildings during the remote learning period, and some schools in Districts 2 and 3 starting the year with a hybrid learning model will be using their gyms for classroom space.
“It seemed like a lot of the language that came from the MIAA last week gave a lot of latitude to the districts. We just felt like it could get messy if schools started doing things on their own, so if we made a decision as a group, it would give us some consistency,” said Advanced Math and Science Academy athletic director Pete Jones, whose Marlborough-based school will start the year remotely.
Other districts don’t seem to be following the CMass lead just yet when it comes to volleyball. According to Mike Roy, athletic director at Minnechaug Regional in Wilbraham, the Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s (PVIAC) athletic directors met Monday night to discuss the fall season. Roy said the idea of moving girls’ volleyball to the Fall II season was discussed, but not voted on because multiple athletic directors wanted to keep it in the revised fall season beginning in September.
Also on Tuesday, NFHS executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff spoke to reporters via Zoom to provide updates on recent national developments in return-to-play activities. Thirty-six states plus the District of Columbia have modified their seasons in some way, and 17 states will not have fall football.
“While we know that there was a range of readiness to pay attention to in each state, as associations worked with their governors, as they worked with their state departments of education, as they worked with their state health agencies, we knew — and certainly with families and local boards of education — that the range of readiness, based on a number of things, was a huge range from having lots of resources, a positive situation in terms of COVID contagion, all the way up to the opposite kind of extreme,” Niehoff said. “In more urban areas where you still had a very concerning COVID contagion, which causes delays in decisions.”
Niehoff also said that across the country, there has been a rise in requests for transfer waivers for student-athletes who wish to play in a neighboring district or state because those COVID regulations are less stringent.
States such as Vermont are also exploring the possibility of bringing girls’ volleyball outdoors and playing it on a turf field, so NFHS is working with USA Volleyball to support getting outdoor volleyball into schools nationwide. The NFHS is also trying to make 7-on-7 football the approved form of football for the fall season for states that decide to hold football seasons this fall, as a way to lessen potential negative public health impacts of playing traditional 11-on-11 football. Niehoff said, however, that these adaptations for both girls’ volleyball and football are outliers.
States are also bracing for the possibilities of allowing simultaneous high school and club sport participation. Niehoff again used volleyball as an example, as the girls’ club season often begins in the spring, preceded by the fall high school season. If a high school volleyball program shifts its season from the fall to the spring, they may be allowed to play on both teams.
“Some of those questions are starting to emerge at the grassroots and state level, and we’re just now working with states and national governing bodies to explore healthy communication in those ways,” Niehoff said.