Photo: Belmont High Football will be delayed until 2021.
It’ll be Thanksgiving without the turkey this year.
The annual Belmont vs Watertown Turkey Day football rivalry, which would be marking its centennial contest in 2020, will have to wait until sometime next year to settle its annual grudge match after the state and the athletic governing body for high school athletics decided the quintessential fall sport is deemed too high risk to play while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the US.
The postponement of the football season statewide was just one of several outcomes with the release of a joint sports guidance for the 2020-2021 school year from the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE), the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) .
The blueprint for the resumption of high school sports – which took months to hammer out between the state agencies and the governing body of athletics in secondary education – was approved by the MIAA on Wednesday, Aug. 19.
With several questions remaining, here are the answers for sports in the new school year:
Q: So will sports be played this fall and the rest of the year?
Yes, the guidance has identified the sports deemed safe to play – either low or moderate risk – and the few which would be “practice only” activities.
The most striking element to come out of the recommendations is the creation of a fourth “season” dubbed Fall II or the Floating season to be played in late winter and into early spring. It was created to allow sports deemed too risky to be played at the beginning of the season and those school districts which has high community infection rates or which decide to pass on the first fall season a chance to compete when there is clearer evidence on the risk factors in participating in the sport.
Here is the list of sports and the time of year they will be played:
Sept 18 – Nov. 20, Fall Sports: Boys and Girls Soccer, Fall Gymnastics, Cross Country, Field Hockey, Girls Volleyball, Swim & Dive, Golf and Dance.
Nov. 30 – Feb. 21, Winter Sports: Boys and Girls Basketball, Boys and Girls Hockey, Wrestling, Winter Gymnastics, Boys and Girls Indoor Track & Field; Alpine Ski, Nordic Ski, Winter Cheer, Dance, Swim & Dive
Feb. 22 – April 25, Fall Sports II (“Floating Season”): Football, Fall Cheer, Unified Basketball, sports not played in fall season because of remote learning model or a decision made to wait until the spring.
April 26 – July 3, Spring Sports– Baseball, Softball, Boys and Girls Lacrosse, Boys and Girls Tennis; Boys Volleyball; Boys, Girls and Unified Outdoor Track & Field, Boys and Girls Rugby, Sailing, Girls’ Golf, and Crew.
Q: So are these dates for each season set in stone?
No. The start and finish dates are flexible due to circumstances such as moving sports between seasons. The date for the spring season ending could extend to mid-July.
Q: What else was approved by the MIAA?
The , there will be no state championship to contend in the fall; only league titles will be on the line. Out of season coaching will be allowed for the entire year and students can play in all four seasons. Also “Captain practices” – in which senior players hold un-sponsored training sessions during the off-season – are being discouraged by the MIAA.
Q: Are districts that choose to begin the school year remotely effected by the new guidance?
Under the DESE guidelines accepted by the MIAA, districts such as Belmont which starts the school year in a remote only setup are currently prohibited along with districts in communities with high COVID-19 rates from playing any sports – whether they are considered low risk such as cross country or moderate risk like soccer and field hockey – until late February when a newly created “floating season” begins.
Q: So, no sports for Belmont athletes until after the winter break?
Not all is lost for the fall and winter athletes as the new rules gives the district an “out”; remote learning districts can get back into competition if they gain the approval of their School Committee. In addition, in his weekly memo to the community on Thursday, Aug. 20, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan noted that “Belmont is able to participate in these sports with our given Phased Plan with a remote start in Phase One.”
Q: So with the general guidance approved, what’s next?
A: With health and safety for the students and coaches paramount, the next issue is how to play each sport under the guidelines set forth by the EED and DESE. And this is all about the MIAA modifying the sports to meet these state goals.
Q: What are modifications?
The modification is just that, altering the rules of the game to either eliminate or significantly reduce encounters that pose an opportunity for the Coronavirus to be transmitted. These changes are becoming a point of contention for both student and coaches.
While some sports will see little change – swimming in a pool with lane markers follows most of the social distancing; cross country will likely use a staggered start – others, such as football, are played in close quarters with constant contact as an integral part of the game.
For many sports, the changes are still being developed while other youth sports associations have already issued new rules. Take, fore instance, soccer. The Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association has just released its modified rules to comply with EEA guidance. There are changes that will effect some of the sports’ bedrock skills include:
- No heading the ball
- Shoulder tackles are prohibited
- Slide tackles within 6 feet of a player are not allowed.
- Throw-ins and corner kicks will be replaced with a “kick-in” which can not be played directly into the opponents’ penalty area.
- A restart after a foul will require all players to stay 6 feet from each other and the opposition to stay 10 yards from the ball.
- The “defensive wall” is suspended.
By Monday, Aug. 25, the MIAA will identify and put the modification guidance in place for each sport, which will be reviewed by each school district, said Phelan.
Q: So will the schools decide after Aug. 24 whether to play in the fall?
A: Well, yes but there is a caveat. Schools are joining their respective athletic leagues – for Belmont that’s the Middlesex League – to discuss the modifications and new rules with the idea of voting as a group on their future playing fall sports.
“The superintendents and athletic directors in the Middlesex League are meeting on Monday, Aug. 24, to discuss these latest guidelines,” said Phelan.
Q: Why would a league or school decide not to play in the fall and wait until the floating year?
A: Simply, there will be sports in which coaches and athletes believe the changes to the rules alters the play to such an extent that student athletes are forced to learn essentially a new sport. Since the MIAA will not decide whether the modifications will be used in the floating or spring season, leagues may take their chances that the development of effective therapeutic or a vaccine which will move the sport to a return to pre-COVID rules.
In addition, by working together on their positions to participate or not, the leagues will secure a schedule of traditional opponents and not have to seek teams to play possibly in far flung locations.
Jim Davis, the district’s athletic director, said that he “will be speaking with Phelan to talk through the District’s options.”
“[It’s a] [w]ork in progress,” said Davis.