ROBBINSVILLE, NJ - Newly appointed New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Chief Operating Officer Colleen Maguire made the case that allowing New Jersey high schools to return to the field in the fall is not only safe, but a necessary step in a statement published on the NJSIAA website.
During the past five months, the lives of our student-athletes have changed drastically. Last March, NJSIAA made the difficult decision to shut down high school sports. That decision was necessary to slow infections and to allow for mitigation efforts to be established. However, cancelling high school sports has come at a significant cost – the emotional and social well-being of our student-athletes. We need to return to sports this fall.
Researchers point to the need for in-person socialization -- and for athletics, in particular – as a way to improve mental health and academic performance. For example, Tim McGuine, a sports medicine researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, recently conducted an expansive survey on the mental health impact the cancellation of youth sports has had on student-athletes. Seventy percent of the student-athletes surveyed reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention. What’s more, affluent students have opportunities to make up for the loss of high school sports in a way that others do not. Structured sports help keep at-risk students focused and engaged academically.
Some question the safety of returning to high school sports, as certain college conferences have cancelled or postponed the fall season. One main difference between high school and college athletics, however, is the travel involved. Travel for high school sports is far more limited than that for Rutgers, which must travel halfway across the country for conference match-ups. The NJSIAA’s model for the fall season keeps competition in-state and local, while eliminating statewide tournament play. High school sports are overseen by certified coaches and athletic trainers. Indeed, the controlled environment of high school athletics is one of the safest places for our student- athletes to be after the bell rings.
Also of note, there have been no known outbreaks precipitated by on-field athletics in New Jersey. Approximately half of our 435 member schools participated in NJSIAA’s summer workout period, which was successfully guided by the protocols developed by NJSIAA’s Medical Advisory Task Force. According to TeamSnap, a youth sports team management application, more than 100,000 children in New Jersey played organized sports this summer – yet, there have been no known clusters or spreading of the virus as a result of that activity. NJSIAA’s team of experts has developed guidance for returning to athletics safely.
The return to sports this fall – with all games being played outdoors – will be a team effort. In order to conduct athletics safely, buy-in will be required from all interested parties, particularly our student-athletes. As part of a team, our student-athletes learn to pull for each other, work with each other, and watch out for each other. Now they have an incentive to keep each other healthy. Partying will be an option for years to come, but there’s only one chance to play sports during high school. As Dr. Damion Martins, a member of the Medical Advisory Task Force, said, the entire team benefits “if they can stay COVID-free … more importantly, you are going to keep yourself and your family safe.”
Schools have returned to practice under strict NJSIAA guidelines, with competition beginning on October 1 for most sports which are played outdoors. Volleyball and gymnastics, which both compete indoors in the fall, have been postponed until March.
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