Thousands of student athletes in New Jersey school sports programs received a glimmer of good news last week. In a memo issued Friday to member schools, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) said it plans to permit summer workouts to begin on or around July 13, though a fall season of competition isn’t guaranteed. 

NJSIAA said it expects to provide schools with specific guidelines, in compliance with state and federal requirements, by June 19. Although GovMurphy’s Executive Order 149 allows summer sports activities to start on June 30, the NJSIAA said a mid-July start date would allow schools time to implement specific recommendations.  

On Monday, the governor said that sports activities would be allowed to resume in stages, or “tiers,” with sports that had a low risk of spreading the coronavirus, such as golf or tennis, allowed to resume play outdoors as soon as June 22.  

The state Department of Health has placed sports into three tiers of risk categories. Medium-risk sports include those with larger teams, including baseball, softball, basketball and soccer. Those sports teams can begin practicing non-contact drills on June 22 and could resume playing games by July 6 if the coronavirus trends remain on the decline in the state, Murphy said. 

The highestrisk sports, like football, can begin non-contact practices on June 22 but must wait until July 20 to play games again, the governor said. 

The NJSIAA said it expects to publish guidelines for all school sports by the end of the week. The organization does not regulate youth sports leagues that are not affiliated with schools, and so the dates set forth in the Department of Health’s guidelines for youth sports do not apply to NJSIAA member school teams. To allow its member schools to implement its recommendations and to ensure that the proper safety measures are in place, NJSIAA will issue a separate set of dates for the resumption of high school sports activity.

“NJSIAA has established direct communication with the governor’s office, the state departments of health and education, and other state associations that are in similar situations regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Colleen Maguire, NJSIAA’s chief operating officer. 

Decisions on the specific timing for returning to play will, in part, be based on input from the NJSIAA’s Medical Advisory Task Force. The task force is reviewing the best available science and will make recommendations consistent with input from the CDC and National Federation of State High School Associations, the NJSIAA said 

“We believe it’s essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the state to return to physical activity and athletic competition in a safe and phased manner,” said Dr. Damion Martins, medical director of Sports Medicine at Atlantic Health System and a member of the NJSIAA Medical Advisory Task Force. “Our guiding principles include the need to screen for symptoms, promote appropriate social distancing and hygiene practices, and decrease potential exposure to respiratory droplets.” 

If the New Jersey sports association follows guidelines released last month by the National Federation of State High School Associations, school sports workouts will be tightly regulated in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus.  

For example: 

  • A basketball player can shoot with a ball, but a team should not practice/pass a single ball among the team where multiple players touch the same ball. 
  • A football player should not participate in team drills with a single ball that will be handed off or passed to other teammates. Contact with other players is not allowed, and there should be no sharing of tackling dummies/donuts/sleds. 
  • A volleyball player should not use a single ball that others touch or hit in any manner. 
  • Softball and baseball players should not share gloves, bats, or throw a single ball that will be tossed among the team. A single player may hit in cages, throw batting practice (with netting as backstop, no catcher). Prior to another athlete using the same balls, they should be collected and cleaned individually. 

(A separate story, in today’s legislative update, reports that the state Senate voted unanimously Monday to allow student athletes to postpone taking required physical examinations because the coronavirus had made it difficult for them to schedule the exam with a doctor. That story can be accessed here. 

There are more than 283,000 participants in New Jersey school sports, according to the NJSIAA, though that number may be higher than the actual number of student athletes involvedStudents who participate in two sports are counted twice by the NJSIAA; participants in three sports are counted three times. 

In a statement released on May 22, Mary Liz Ivins, president of the NJSIAA, explained the difficult position all school athletic programs are facing as they try to return to competition while keeping students safe. 

“For all those with a passion to return to play, we ask that you continue your efforts and follow all relevant guidelines, including social distancing and wearing of masks. The fewer cases there are today, the greater the likelihood we will play in the fall,” said Ivins who is also chair of the association’s medical advisory task force. 

“As we navigate the next few months, it is important that we prepare to be flexible with a new normal,” she said. “Of course, the timing of our return to school will ultimately be determined by the State of New Jersey. And, it’s important to keep in mind that going back to our school buildings won’t necessarily guarantee an immediate return of athletics. It’s possible that some sports will follow different schedules than others.” 

Other states have already opened their high school athletic programs, but the NJSIAA said New Jersey must be more cautious because it is the most densely populated state and has the second highest number of total COVID-19 cases and deaths, second only to New York