Uncertainty abounds in preparing for post-pandemic sports season

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Hopkinton High School athletic director Rich Cormier is not entirely certain what high school sports will look like when they return in the fall — assuming they do — but he’s confident there will be significant changes compared to when the last HHS teams suited up this past winter.

Cormier and his fellow ADs in both the Tri-Valley League and Southeastern Massachusetts have been meeting regularly to try to tackle the many questions surrounding what precautions might need to be put in place in order to keep athletes, coaches, officials and spectators safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first step, he said, will be getting more guidance from the state about the rules and regulations for students returning to school.

“I think based on what the state provides to schools for what students returning to the building may or may not look like, we can gain some insight on what sports might look like,” Cormier said.

But some of the most common means of limiting the virus’s spread in everyday life do not translate to the field or court.

“To truly play our fall slate of sports we cannot expect students to be wearing masks when they play,” Cormier said, “and there is no way to social distance in any sport other than golf.”

One edge Massachusetts may have is the fact that the state sends students back to school and therefore starts the fall sports season later than many other states around the country. Cormier said it will allow the Bay State to observe what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to education in a COVID-19 world. Some youth sports leagues in the state are going to attempt to play modified seasons this summer if the phased reopening continues and social distancing guidelines are relaxed enough to allow for it.

“I think that will also provide some lessons,” Cormier said.

The fields at Hopkinton High School officially opened after the last day of school on June 17.

“Our coaches and our students are chomping at the bit to get out there, without question,” Cormier said. “They want to just be outside and be with their teammates and be playing something.”

But the eagerness to get on the field is coupled with anxiety, the AD added, saying, “There is a real concern about what the fall might look like, and beyond that.

“Even if we are able to start a fall season, there is going to be that voice wondering whether the hammer of a second wave is going to drop and whether we may need to take a pause or cancel sports once again,” he said. “That is a fear for myself, for coaches, for students, families, everyone involved.”

Cormier said schools likely will see a drop in participation as a result of the pandemic and an uptick on home schooling. Registration for fall sports is open and the tentative plan is still to have football practice begin Aug. 21 and the rest of the fall sports start Aug. 24. While the game schedules are set, Cormier has not put together a schedule for tryouts and practices or held informational meetings because, at this stage, there is far too much uncertainty.

While some things seem certain, like increased cleaning measures or a halt to the sharing of water bottles and equipment, other issues like whether spectators will have to stay 6 feet apart — if they are allowed at all — remain unanswered. For any sports to happen, in the summer or the fall, Massachusetts would have to advance to at least Phase 3 of its four-phase reopening plan.

Recent numbers showing the virus may be waning in Massachusetts provide Cormier with some optimism that milestone will be reached well before the fall season.

“That’s what’s keeping me positive, things are trending in the right direction and I’m hopeful we can return to school and return to athletic participation,” he said. “I don’t think there is any chance we return as we left in the winter, though. There are going to be restrictions and changes and we need to make sure we are emphasizing the safety and well-being of everyone involved.”

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