It was a hot, humid, sunny day in Moorestown, 96 degrees, with a sultry July breeze pumping in air from the south/southwest, from areas of the country where coronavirus cases were spreading rapidly. On an empty, sprawling athletic field, viewed from a safe distance, a solitary athlete, a young man, worked alone with a soccer ball, lost in his thoughts as he used his knees and his arms to keep the ball in the air in front of him. He was preparing to play in a game that might never be allowed to happen.

You had to admire his hope and tenacity in the heat. Despite months of enforced isolation, barred from working with his teammates or coaches, he was out there, perspiring, perfecting his game.

In normal times, he would win high praise for preparing for the upcoming school athletic season. Sports can teach important lessons about life. Preparation matters, for example. Coaches, parents, teachers all want to reach the children put in their care with the same message: Work hard. Do your best. Win or lose, the sun will rise tomorrow on a brand new day. The important thing is that you tried; you played the game and gave it your all.

In this mind-bending period in history, facing an unprecedented threat from the selectively lethal coronavirus, the very act of bringing people together, for a game, for school, could prove to be a serious mistake. Epidemiologists say that many people who are spreading the virus show no symptoms, so the idea of tracking their temperatures and monitoring their conditions could well prove to be futile. It is a hard time to be a parent, and a coach, much less responsible for the 283,000 student athletes who participate in school sports programs in New Jersey. 

Yet that is exactly the predicament facing Colleen Maguire, chief operating officer of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA). The mother of three school-age girls, Maguire is the first woman to head the athletic association. Working with teams of medical experts, she and other NJSIAA officials are tasked with deciding what is safe, and what provides student athletes with the maximum opportunity to participate in the activities they love. It’s not a job she takes lightly, nor is it a decision she will make alone.

The NJSIAA has convened two task forces, a team of medical experts, and is working closely with the governor’s office and the state department of health. 

The NJSIAA announced a first phase of limited workouts aimed at getting student athletes back in shape after four months of enforced inactivity. Originally scheduled to end on July 26, phase one has now been extended to Aug. 28, and the NJSIAA now says the start of the fall athletic season will be delayed one month.

Following summer workouts, there will be a two-week hiatus from August 29 through September 13, during which only virtual meetings between students and coaches will be permitted. The first football game won’t be permitted until Oct. 2. 

“High school sports are school-based, so we need to first ensure all is in order with the opening of our schools,” said Maguire in a July 10 statement. “After that, we can begin playing sports.”

The rules for the extended summer workouts will be strict. For example, each district must assign school personnel to conduct pre-screening. Any athlete with a temperature greater than 100.4 degrees will be required to return home. Workouts can’t be longer than 90 minutes, and athletes can’t use school showers after practice.

“My fear is if we at the NJSIAA cannot control fall sports and run them in a protected environment, that there will be a void that will be exploited by third parties that don’t have the health and safety of the students and athletes as their number one priority, as the NJSIAA does,” Maguire said during a June 19 virtual press conference. 

Youth sports leagues and athletic clubs don’t have the same level of training and regulation, she said.

“We are not going to rest until we figure out a way to get these kids back to high school athletics and back to their peers, and back to their friends, and back to the coaches that are trained, that are certified, that are approved by the school,” Maguire explained.

Because of the uncertainty created by the virus, typical off-season athletic program preparations are in some disarray. With the state facing a $10 billion budget deficit, and new costs anticipated as schools consider what actions to take to keep students and staff safe, a significant number of coaches don’t have a contract.

Paying Coaches for Not Coaching? Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said that’s because many school superintendents did not want to commit to paying coaches if they are unsure that there will be an athletic season. 

The governor signed A-3904 into law, Bozza pointed out, which would require coaches with contracts to be paid whether there was an athletic program or not. The NJSBA raised concerns about paying employees if they were not providing services and urged the Legislature to fully fund this new mandate. Bozza said he believed “the majority,” of school districts had awarded contracts to coaches, but a significant number had not. 

NorthJersey.com reported that, as of June 28, 25% of the 34 schools in the Greater Middlesex Athletic Conference had not agreed to pay their athletic coaches.

Bozza said the future of fall sports is in doubt, with many administrators worried about being able to safely open school.

“With the outbreaks in the other parts of the country becoming so significant now, people were already worried about a rebound of the virus, and continue to be so even more now,” he said. “It really casts a pall over the opening of school.

“Athletics are a great concern,” Bozza said, adding that studies are showing that many students under the age of 18 may be carriers of the virus without showing any symptoms. “We talk about screening students, and taking temperatures, and that really doesn’t help us with individuals who are asymptomatic, which many young people are.

“There’s also a concern about liability, which transmits to school boards, obviously. What happens if we follow the minimum standards? What happens when a case breaks out, or more? What is the liability of the school district with regard to either parents or staff members saying you should have done more than just the minimum, and therefore you may have some responsibility for the spread of the illness, and does that come along with a legal claim?” Bozza asked.

With all the concerns, Bozza said he does not discount the importance of sports or extracurricular activities, calling them “critically important” and in many cases, “they’re the primary reason kids show up for school.”

With prospects uncertain for a fall athletic season, Gov. Murphy signed S-2383 into law on June 26. The new law creates a three-year pilot program that would allow students to apply for a “bridge year” that would allow them to postpone graduation, take credits at a community college, and return to high school to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities that they missed because of the virus. The NJSBA took no position on the bill. Bozza’s association opposed it. 

He said his group had concerns that older, more mature athletes would compete with younger students for extracurricular activities. He said he sympathized with the plight of athletes who were denied their season by the coronavirus.

“But going forward, all we are doing is denying opportunities to students who are rising into those years,” he said. By helping one group of athletes, he said, the law would hurt another. 

Students must apply for the bridge year, and it is not known how many will participate in the program.

Hope Springs Eternal In North Brunswick, athletic director Shaun Morrell said he didn’t know what a fall sports season would look like, but he has considered several possibilities.

“A football or basketball season with no one in the stands? A lot of students and athletes thrive on the feeling around them. They thrive on the fans, the energy that’s created,” he said. “Without fans, without that energy, it might feel a bit like a scrimmage.”

Still, he said, most students “are just anxious to resume some sort of physical activity, to resume that camaraderie with their teammates.”

Sports offers so much more than competition, he said.

“Sports provides kids with a place to go, to connect… with face to face interaction. … How can you replace that if there’s no program?”

Asked if there was one thing he hoped for this fall, he said, “I would hope that we have the opportunity to make athletics happen, even if that means we have to do a lot more work, or adjust some of the normal ways of functioning, whether that’s removing fans, or whatever it is.

“As long as we have an opportunity for kids to be together,” he said, “we’ll make it work.”

Alan Guenther is the NJSBA’s assistant editor.

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