Maryland high school sports, postponed for the coronavirus pandemic, may return as soon as October, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announced Thursday, reversing a decision earlier this month to play all sports in the spring.
“High school sports and competition are deeply rooted in the fabric of our schools and communities,” Salmon said at a news conference with Gov. Larry Hogan. “The steps taken today are directly related to the needs of our students to be active and engaged for their physical, social and emotional well being.”
Under the new plan, the fall sports season for football, soccer, field hockey, golf, cross country and volleyball would have seven weeks available for competition with practices starting Oct. 7, competitions Oct. 27 to Dec. 12 and a “culminating event/tournament” taking place Dec. 14-19.
Maryland is one of only seven states to have no fall competition so far this year. Within the last month, Delaware and Michigan also reversed prior decisions to play sports in the spring.
The decision to let play resume comes as most public school systems remain closed for in-person classes, though 17 of the state’s 24 systems are planning to start bringing back small groups of students in October and November. The Hogan administration, meanwhile, is pushing forward with reopening the economy and urging schools to reopen to students, citing health metrics that show some of the lowest levels of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations related to the coronavirus.
“We think it’s really important to try to make efforts to get more of them back into face-to-face instruction and to give them the opportunity to have some of this sports activity that they also need,” the Republican governor said during the news conference.
Hogan added that “our health metrics could not possibly be any better,” citing "record low positivity, record low number of [coronavirus] cases per 100,000.
Salmon said the Maryland State Department of Education and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association “heard loudly and clearly from members of the school communities across the state” the desire for fall sports.
Salmon noted that local school systems that choose not to restart the fall sports season in October may use the second-semester plan announced earlier by the MPSSAA.
“Local school systems can make their decisions based on their metrics at that point in time," she said.
Montgomery County, the state’s largest school district, said Thursday in a release it will continue with virtual athletics during the first semester “at this time.”
Public health experts warned that playing any sports and participating in practices and other events comes with some risk during the pandemic.
“It’s kind of putting the cart before the horse to be thinking about high school sports before we have students back in the classroom,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar in the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “However, there are a number of sports that might be done with lower levels of risks, especially those occurring outdoors.”
Sell said her main concerns were activities done indoors, such as using training facilities and locker rooms. But even if there were safety measures during the sports activities themselves, officials would need to encourage a “culture of safety” so that related activities don’t pose risks, she said. That includes gatherings before and after games.
Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, went further and called it “a fundamentally bad idea” to play most sports.
He said noncontact sports could perhaps be done safely so long as everyone kept their distance, there were no crowds in the stands and no one used a locker room.
“That’s probably safer than contact sports like hockey, baseball, football, basketball and soccer where you are huffing and puffing and wearing a mask really doesn’t work,” he said.
He said professional athletics have created bubbles in which everyone is screened on a regular basis, but players still are testing positive for the virus. Benjamin also said research shows there are significant health risks from infections, even in young healthy athletes, such as inflammation around the heart.
“I know no one wants to lose a year of eligibility or a year playing a sport they love,” he said. “But it’s risky.”
Thursday’s announcement received a tepid response from Maryland’s 24 school superintendents. In a statement, they stressed the complexity of efforts to get students back in classrooms first.
“As we return to classrooms, so too will we return to play, but the timing may not be perfectly aligned,” the statement said.
They pointed out that some students could be left out if sports and extracurricular activities are only available to those whose parents can provide transportation.
The superintendents also said that while many businesses, industries and schools try to get back to normal, “the bar must be higher when it comes to our children.”
Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto “is now reviewing the many implications of the option announced by Gov. Hogan and Dr. Salmon today as compared to the previously announced plan ... in order to determine the best course of action,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the county schools.
Michael Duffy, who is president of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and Carroll County’s supervisor of athletics, said the county’s board of education on Wednesday night “stated very clearly its desire for us to begin sports as soon as we’re given the go-ahead from those at the state level."
“Obviously today’s announcement provides that opportunity for us,” Duffy said, “and we recognize we have a lot of work ahead of us in a very short time period," including seeking advice from the county health department.
Will Thompson, the football coach at Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge, said that while it’s exciting to have a return right around the corner, he’s frustrated by “a huge lack of communication from the top down" and concerned about safety.
“I’m really concerned with it being rushed,” he said. "I mean, there’s a laundry list of things that have to be done just logistically before we’re even talking about stepping on the football field.”
Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano said during a board of education meeting Thursday that the decision “needs additional analysis at the local level" and he will report back to the board once more guidance is provided by the state.
Aberdeen High School athletic director Tim Lindecamp, who is also the girls soccer coach, said he’s glad kids will have a chance to play sports but added: "If we can’t have kids coming back to school, how can we have them on the field hitting each other?”
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association postponed the fall and winter seasons Aug. 3 because of coronavirus concerns.
The MPSSAA had announced Sept. 11 that it planned to conduct overlapping winter, fall and spring high school sports competitions beginning Feb. 1 and running through June 19.
Under that plan, the winter sports season would run from Feb. 1 through March 27; the fall season, March 15 through May 8; and the spring season, April 26 through June 19.
Under the plan announced Thursday, after the fall season starting in October, the eight-week winter sports season would start with practices Dec. 14, hold competitions Jan. 4 to Feb. 27 and end with a culminating event March 1-13. The nine-week spring season would begin practices March 15, with competitions from April 5 to June 5 and a culminating event June 7-19.
For the state’s two largest private school athletic organizations, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland, discussions about a return to play continue with a scheduled meeting Oct. 7 with the two boards of governors.
“The only thing I can say at this time — and I did talk to [IAAM executive director] Sue [Thompson] about this — is that the MIAA and IAAM are continuing on with discussions regarding return-to-play options for fall sports in our member schools,” MIAA executive director Lee Dove said.
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Baltimore Sun Media reporters Meredith Cohn, Liz Bowie, Glenn Graham, Randy McRoberts, Megan Woodward and Bill Wagner contributed to this article.