MAPLEWOOD, NJ — As the upcoming school year looms over Columbia High School staff, students and families, plenty of questions remain unanswered. Luckily, the plan for fall sports just became a bit clearer: The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) recently released the Phase 2 sports guidelines that dictate how student-athletes spend practices, as reported by TAPinto. If they successfully spend Phase I in “pods” of 10 people performing socially-distant drills and general conditioning work, students will combine into larger groups of 25-30 for further skill work. In both scenarios, coaches will take precautions like checking temperatures, limiting equipment sharing, frequently sanitizing communal surfaces, and enforcing the 6-foot rule.

Though Phase 1 allowed New Jersey schools to begin practices beginning July 13, Columbia High School plans to wait until August 3, said CHS Interim Athletic Director Ken Mullen. “There are several considerations before initiating practices, like a required COVID-19 health questionnaire that students fill out a week before the first session. When the date arrives, every team will participate in some form of workout,” Mullen said, depending on the sport.

“These athletes normally would be working out daily or every other day,” Mullen said. “They don’t have that opportunity right now because of this pandemic. Phase 1 and 2 will provide the opportunity to get together and do some physical training and minimal strategy.” 

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Upcoming practices can’t replicate regular strategy work due to social distancing limitations, he said, but this will provide an opportunity for student-athletes to focus on their personal fitness goals. Most likely, pod sizes will shorten the time spent with coaches: Because each coach can only work with 10 athletes at once, larger programs may have to implement brief sessions for each small group (Phase I technically limits workouts to 90 minutes, which extends to 120 minutes during Phase 2.) For example, more than 100 athletes have signed up for the CHS boys soccer team, meaning that the three coaches must carefully schedule these workouts and possibly cut them down to 30 minutes.

South Orange resident Madhu Pai is nevertheless eager to see her daughter, a rising junior, return to varsity soccer practices. She said she is still carefully regulating her children’s daily activities, though she hopes they can soon exercise outdoors after months of quarantine.

“I feel good about it,” Pai said. “I think they’re taking a phased and measured approach to getting these kids back on the field and I know that my daughter and some of her teammates are quite anxious to get back.”

Pai does worry that the state’s guidelines are relatively vague and leave most details up to individual school districts. This could create tension between districts if they play together in the future, she said. 

“A lot of times when guidelines are released, we come up with all these other questions,” said CHS Principal Frank Sanchez. “What happens if we’re scrimmaging West Orange and one of their students gets COVID-19? Do we quarantine our entire team? Those are questions that will have to be answered before we start, but those are the things that we’re waiting for further guidance and coming up with a plan.”

Ken Mullen said the current Phase I and 2 guidelines are actually quite strict and limit coaches during practices, including the types of possible drills. During field hockey, for example, players can’t attempt the usual offense-defense challenge because this requires close physical interactions. And, obviously, football tackles are off-limits for now.

National sports have proven that, even with top-tier doctors and staff working around-the-clock, team play can pose a significant risk of transmission between players. That’s why CHS will move slowly to ensure that students can exercise and build team spirit while reducing risk, Mullen said. He has not discussed Phase 2 with coaches yet — for now, the school is focused on easing into socially-distanced conditioning practices.

“We need to be realists,” Mullen said. “The objective of this is to give kids a chance to work out and build high-fives or body bumps. You’re here for a purpose and that is to try to get a little more fit and create a team atmosphere for Columbia High School.”

For a full list of Phase I NJSIAA guidelines, click here. Phase 2 guidelines can be found here.


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