Dear Editor:

In my decades as an educator and school administrator, I’m hard pressed to find a situation as challenging as what we face related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last few months have been painful on many levels, from the heartbreaking loss of life to the millions who have suffered emotional and economic loss. It’s been a harrowing time for everyone.

For our students, their lives will be forever changed, from the disruption of academics, to loss of physical contact, to missed social and community opportunities. For our spring sport athletes, both here and around the country, the missed season is understandably upsetting.  While the loss of spring play is disappointing, there remains hope for many future opportunities to compete, and that should be our focus moving forward.

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As president of the NJSIAA, my primary goal is the safe return to interscholastic play as quickly as possible. We remain optimistic that school activities, including sports, will return in the fall – for students’ physical and mental well-being. With every positive step, we get closer to this goal. As I write, recommendations from the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) Sports Advisory Committee are being circulated and studied and teams of education and medical professionals from around the country -- including experts in public health, sports medicine, pediatrics, and others – are developing return-to-school and return-to-play protocols that will ensure everyone a safe return both to school and play. We’re optimistic that these steps will help our kids get back to school and back on the playing field in the fall.

To help ensure that we achieve our objective of a safe return, the NJSIAA has formed, and I will chair, an NJSIAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Task Force. This task force will work with NJSIAA’s member schools, the NJ Departments of Health and Education, the NFHS Sports Medical Advisory Committee and other leading authorities, to provide the association with the best, most up to date guidance to allow New Jersey high school student-athletes to return to athletics as soon as safely possible.

The goal of the task force is to identify and implement both general and sports-specific modifications that will be required by NJSIAA member schools.  In the short-term, our efforts will be focused on returning the fall athletes to their sports for the 2020 season. The committee will include Kathy Whalen, NJ Department of Education, Dr. Lakota Kruse, medical director, NJ Department of Health, Division of Family Health Services, and members of our medical advisory committee, including Dr. Jack Kripsak, chair of the NJSIAA Medical Advisory Committee, Dr. Damion Martins, team physician and director of Internal Medicine to the New York Jets and a member of the NFL COVID Taskforce, and Dr. Rob Franks, a team physician for USA wrestling and team consultant to the Philadelphia Phillies. NJSIAA assistant director Tony Maselli will serve as the NJSIAA liaison.

In the near-term, NJSIAA strongly believes that students – both as individuals and a team -- are well served by appropriate, virtual interaction with their coaches, and we will continue to facilitate these important connections.

For all those with a passion to return to play, we ask that you continue your efforts and follow all relevant guidelines, including social distancing and wearing of masks. The fewer cases there are today, the greater the likelihood we will play in the fall.  And as we navigate the next few months, it is important that we prepare to be flexible with a new normal. Of course, the timing of our return to school will ultimately be determined by the State of New Jersey. And, it’s important to keep in mind that going back to our school buildings won’t necessarily guarantee an immediate return of athletics. It’s possible that some sports will follow different schedules than others.

During times of uncertainty, it’s not uncommon for rumors to circulate. Often, even well-intended suggestions can trigger an “infodemic” of mis-information. When it comes to high school sports in New Jersey, please reference only reputable information sources, including New Jersey state agencies, the NJSIAA, or the official channels of your school district.

Many obstacles remain. Hard work, patience and flexibility will be required, and at times some may feel deflated. But I’m confident that together, we will help get our kids safely back in the game.

Mary Liz Ivins is President of the NJSIAA Executive Committee and Chair of NJSIAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Task Force.