SCHOLASTICS: NFHS drops sport-by-sport “risk” categories, shifts COVID-19 guidance to factors such as community spread

SCHOLASTICS: NFHS drops sport-by-sport “risk” categories, shifts COVID-19 guidance to factors such as community spread

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CHESHIRE — The label of “high risk” is off the national high school sports table. So is “moderate risk.” So is “low.”

The categories that have been used to gauge the risk of COVID-19 spread among high school sports — and shaped decisions on which sports would play and not play — have been abandoned by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The NFHS, which oversees high school sports associations across the country, including the CIAC, announced Tuesday afternoon that its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee has revised the COVID-19 guidance that has been in place since last May. It’s been replaced it with a new “Statement on Risk of COVID-19 During High School Sports.”

The move was prompted by greater understanding of COVID-19, including growing evidence, according to the NFHS, that the majority of sports-related spread of the disease appears to occur from social contact, and not during sports participation.

“As knowledge of the virus that causes COVID-19 has evolved, we have increasingly recognized that transmission depends upon multiple factors that cannot be easily accounted for by simply dividing sports into three distinct categories of risk,” the NFHS reported in its release.

The three “risk” divisions have been replaced by five “factors” the NFHS advises member associations to consider when evaluating what sports to play, and how to play them, during the pandemic.

■Community infection rates appear to be the strongest predictor for high school athletes being infected;■Proven cases of direct COVID-19 transmission during athletics remain relatively rare;■Participants in non-contact sports show lower rates of COVID-19 infection than those in contact sports;■Participants in outdoor sports show lower rates of infection than those in indoor sports;■Using masks reduces transmission rates in indoor sports to those seen in outdoor sports.

In addition to those five factors, the NFHS encourages states to weigh advice from the Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What does this mean for Connecticut student-athletes, in particular those in wrestling and football, sports that were designated high risk and cancelled accordingly? 

We’ll see. The CIAC received the Federation’s update on Tuesday and will be reviewing it over the next week with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, and then with the Connecticut Department of Public Health and Governor Ned Lamont's office.

“My initial read through this is that they have, at this point, said that the tieired system isn’t supported by the research,” said  CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini. “What exactly that means is what we have to meet with our medical experts and talk about to determine how that changes CIAC’s position on anything, if it does.”

Connecticut’s basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics and boys swim teams remain on course to open an abbreviated winter season next Monday, Feb. 8. Athletes in all of those sports, except for swimming, will compete wearing masks.

Indoor track teams are practicing, but won’t be competing any time before March. The Connecticut Department of Public Health has advised against large, multi-team indoor events, which are the staple of indoor track, through at least February.

Not included in the winter group is wrestling. It is the one winter sport, aside from competitive cheer and dance, that was deemed high risk and thus cancelled. (Wrestlers are allowed to condition and engage in non-contact skill work in cohorts of no more than four, something area teams are taking advantage of.)

The other sports that were considered high risk were tackle football and boys lacrosse. Football has already been cancelled for the year in Connecticut, first the traditional fall season and then the “alternative” season that had been set up for late February to mid April.

Boys lacrosse plays in the spring. Several weeks ago, Lungarini wrote to the NFHS requesting it reconsider the high-risk status for boys lacrosse, as well as to review its tiered risk system in general.

It appears the CIAC wasn’t alone in making the latter request.

“I’m sure there were others as well,” Lungarini said. “It was a topic of discussion within our Section 1 meetings that we have on a weekly basis.

“I give the NFHS a lot of credit for listening to its membership and conducting a review we asked them to conduct,” Lungarini added. “Now we have to take the statement they issued, unpack that and try to understand what that means for our state.”

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