The push to restart high school sports next month in Minnesota is getting down to the nitty gritty.
For example, how to adhere to Gov. Tim Walz’s new mask mandate during practice, where reaching the critical “level of exertion’’ that exempts mask use will vary from drill to drill and player to player. Or even within the same drill, such as an extended volleyball rally that gets the cardio going for a team of six athletes.
About 300 people, representing high schools across Minnesota, made it clear in a virtual weekly meeting Thursday with Minnesota State High School League officials that they would like more clarity on the mask policy brought about to help stem the coronavirus pandemic.
League officials said they would seek more guidance on that as school representatives, who have met as the league’s “L.E.A.D. network’’ weekly since the pandemic began, offered up some of the biggest challenges ahead for their communities: Travel between games, positive COVID tests, athlete safety, spectators.
Those hurdles will quickly become real assuming plans for learning in schools will allow for at least some, if not all, fall sports to start as scheduled Aug. 17.
The path to getting there has wound down to this:
Walz is expected to announce his decision on reopening schools next Thursday. Options are said to include fully opening schools, continuing distance learning and invoking a mix of both approaches.
That plan will be taken into account by a league task force charged with making recommendations for returning to high school sports and activities. The group, formed last week, held its second meeting on Wednesday. Its work is expected to be finished on or around July 31.
The task force report goes to the high school league board, which convenes for a workshop on Aug. 3, followed by a full board meeting to vote on the plan Aug. 4.
If that sounds like cutting it close, consider this: At least a few football teams, owing to scheduling peculiarities, are set to start practice just six days later.
Moves by some states to delay fall sports drew as close as Wisconsin on Thursday when the state body that oversees high school sports recommended pushing back the start for some to September. It also asked its staff to to put together a plan that would allow schools that opt out of fall competition to offer those sports in the spring.
Bob Madison, associate director of Minnesota’s high school league, told the school officials group Thursday that the 12-member task force is getting into the work of creating options for fall sports, and “sports in general this year.’’ He said flipping seasons for sports “is not an option we’re looking at.’’
“We want to provide as much of a season as possible,’’ he said, knowing it will face interruptions caused by the pandemic.
In response to questions about the new state mandate to wear masks, league associate director Craig Perry cited one of the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines governing when a face covering can be temporarily removed: “When participating in indoor physical exercise — such as in a gym or fitness center — where the level of exertion makes wearing a face covering difficult, as long as social distancing can be maintained at all times.’’
Questions from the group sought for more guidance for practice situations in which an athlete’s exertion level goes up, such as in a volleyball rally or five-on-five basketball drill.
Perry said as a default, “Always practice safe social distancing, wear a mask whenever possible.’’
League Executive Director Erich Martens said he was in a Zoom call on Wednesday with officials with other midwestern state high school groups, most like Minnesota in their hope to restart fall sports on schedule. But he acknowledged that "things can change really, really quickly.''
He told the group that in Iowa, six percent of schools encountered two-week quarantines from time to time during its summer baseball season.
In Minnesota, where youth sports began play this summer with social distancing and other practice restrictions in place, Martens said Tarek Tomes, who is overseeing youth sports for the state during the pandemic, told him there had been some COVID-19 transmissions but with no major outbreaks. He credited keeping kids separated into smaller pods for helping those programs continue.
Martens told those in the meeting, "You're asking all the same questions'' that the league's task force is working to answer.
Said Perry as the meeting concluded, “I’m the optimist here, gang. We’re doing everything we can to make it safe.’’