CHESHIRE — The 2020-21 high school winter sports season won’t be starting any time before the middle of January. The CIAC Board of Control voted Tuesday morning to postpone the winter season until Jan. 19.
The decision was driven by rising cases of COVID-19 that have prompted some CIAC member schools to pull back from in-person learning.
“The reason behind the CIAC Board’s decision is due to the increasing COVID numbers within the state of Connecticut as well as the difficult decision that many schools are facing in moving to a full-distance model at this time,” CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said in a video statement on Tuesday.
Later, on a Zoom call with the media, Lungarini said, “The (COVID-19) outlook isn’t great in the next couple months, so when you put all of those factors together, we want our kids to be in classrooms for instruction as much as possible. We want our communities to be safe, and the board felt that this was a decision that gave clear direction and also kept the safety of our school communities at the forefront.”
Tuesday’s decision was met with mixed emotions by area athletic directors. They empathized with student-athletes. They understood the CIAC’s rationale.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Lyman Hall AD Steve Baker said. “I feel terrible for the kids. Today was another difficult day.
“I understand the decision,” Baker continued. “If you look at the numbers in Wallingford, if you look at the numbers in the state and nationally, I understand the decision. The safety of our kids is paramount. Hopefully, we will be able to get this going later in the (school) year.”
“It’s for the health and safety of our students, for the state of Connecticut it’s a good thing,” said Platt’s Rich Katz. “We’ve got outbreaks right now. Let’s see if it’s safer on the 19th.”
The Board of Control met on Tuesday ostensibly to review and approve a winter sports plan the CIAC had drawn up in consultation with its individual sports committees, the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the state’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
That plan called for starting basketball, hockey and boys swimming practices on Dec. 5 and delaying a decision on the other winter sports — wrestling, indoor track, gymnastics, competitive dance and cheer — until Jan. 4.
Those later sports, except for indoor track and gymnastics, are deemed high risk for spreading COVID-19. A lack of facilities was the issue with track and gymnastics. Basketball and hockey players were going to be required to wear masks.
Tuesday’s postponement to mid-January, as understandable as it was in light of the resurgence in COVID-19, did come as something of a surprise. While the CIAC had previously delayed the start of the winter season, initially set for Nov. 21, it was to buy time to solidify the winter plan. All systems appeared to be on course for a Dec. 5 launch.
“It is a little bit more draconian than I thought was coming,” said one area administrator. “I think we all anticipated that it would be a little earlier than that.”
Said Maloney Athletic Director Bob McKee, “I was a little surprised just because never, in any of the discussions when we were on a call to CIAC or in our league, never once was it mentioned about being pushed back until January.”
McKee added, “I understand. Every school, every community is going through COVID differently. It’s a challenge for schools and for everyone.”
Lungarini said the decision to push out until mid-January was the product of continual discussions between the CIAC and state medical officials.
“It was no late information,” the CIAC executive director said. “There was nothing that came in last night that was the tipping point of anything.”
Lungarini added that Jan. 19 was selected as the new start date because it falls in line with the resumption of school after Christmas break. Monday, Jan. 4, is the scheduled return date. A two-week quarantine window would push that out to Monday, Jan. 18.
“The conversation with the board was really centered around the number of schools that we are seeing go to distance learning and we are starting to see more and more schools lean toward January 19 as a return,” Lungarini said.
The Board of Control met Tuesday against the backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in Connecticut (93,284), nationwide (11.3 million) and globally (55.3 million).
Locally, all towns in the Record-Journal coverage area, like most towns in the southwest quadrant of Connecticut, are now in “red” status on the Department of Health’s COVID-19 Alert System, signifying 15 or more daily cases per 100,000 people.
The state’s daily case rates have climbed from an average of less than 100 back in August to over 1,000 starting this month, including a peak of 1,606 on Nov. 9.
The CIAC, in its winter plan, noted that if enough school districts rose into the “red” zone to the point where maintaining game schedules wasn’t possible, the season would be shut down and sports activity limited to conditioning and low risk non-contact skill work.
Short of that, the CIAC was advising individual “red” schools to postpone events, but didn’t ban them outright. “Red” schools could still compete, but had to notify the school district of the opposing team. Administrators from both schools would then have to agree on whether to go forward with the event.
Contests against out-of-state or non-CIAC schools have already been prohibited for the winter. So have multi-team events among CIAC schools.
According to the new timeline, practices would start Jan. 19, games at least 10 days later.
The CIAC is hoping to stage a state postseason for basketball, hockey and swimming in mid-to-late February. The CIAC has also set up an “alternative” season for March and the first half of April to accommodate football, which was canceled in the fall.
That alternative season now looms as something of an option for a delayed winter season, something Wilcox Tech Athletic Director Steve Wodarski touched upon Tuesday.
“Given the circumstances with so many schools in a distance learning mode and numerous towns being issued a ‘red alert’ status, the decision makes sense,” Wodarski remarked. “What remains to be seen is if the winter sports will be played while the alternative spring season gets started. While that scenario could force some athletes to unfortunately have to pick between two sports that they would have normally participated in, it would at least give those winter sports a reasonable amount of contests to participate in. I would imagine that we will hear those details in the days to come.”
Those are indeed details to which the CIAC will turn its attention.
“Now that we’ve established January 19 as the start date, the next step for us will be working to look at the calendar to identify what the end dates and tournament dates will be and, at this point, we are looking primarily at all of the winter and spring sports, and then football that didn’t get played in the fall,” Lungarini said. “So we are going to keep all of those in consideration and look at the calendar in the next couple weeks to determine the best place to put those.”
The delay of the 2020-21 winter season mirrors, at least at the onset, the course of the 2020 spring season, which was delayed several times in incremental fashion before being cancelled altogether.
That was back in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, however. Connecticut, shut down by Gov. Ned Lamont in mid-March, began to reopen in late spring and, by summer, virtually all youth sports were engaged in Little League, AAU and club seasons.
On the CIAC front, an abbreviated fall season was conducted for all sports, save for football. The CIAC fall season ran from Oct. 1 through last week, with conferences realigning into regional cohorts to reduce travel and with schools limiting spectators to parents and immediate family to reduce potential exposure.
State tournaments were not a part of the fall season. The postseason was run by the conferences within their regional cohorts. Most swim meets were held virtually.
While local fall teams did see an occasional game canceled due to COVID-19 concerns among opponents and had some of their own players go into quarantine, the majority completed their schedule. The only area teams to stop playing prematurely, just ahead of the postseason week, were the Sheehan and Maloney boys soccer teams and Southington field hockey team.
Athletic directors are holding out hope that a winter season, even one as delayed as this one, will come to pass.
“It (the waiting game) is like in the fall,” said Cheshire’s Steve Trifone. “You can plan on participating in January. That can change as well, but we want to be ready for that date (Jan. 19) right now.”
“We’re anxious to get an update from the CIAC and our conferences relative to the start in mid-January,” said Southington’s Steve Risser. “I’m always going to try to stay optimistic for the sake of the student-athletes. We’re going to take it day to day and week to week. That’s the best we can hope for at this point.”
In the meantime, teams can continue out-of-season conditioning as long as their school administration approves it.
“It’s a really tough situation because it is so important for the social and emotional well-being of our student-athletes that they stay connected with their coaches, teammates, and teams, and remain active. I truly believe that the safest place for our students, other than the comfort of their own homes, is under our supervision,” remarked Sheehan Athletic Director Chris Dailey. “As an athletic department, we are going to continue to be creative in engaging our student-athletes in a virtual format and also continue to advocate for safe in-person activity. The health and safety of our students is always the number one priority, so we have to follow the lead of our state and local health departments in determining when and what activity is permitted.”