CHESHIRE — The calendar has flipped to August and dates are flashing along the Connecticut high school sports horizon like so many lighthouses.
August 12-14 for football team activites. August 21 for the start of football practice. August 26 for the other fall sports.
Also flashing: the increase in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant.
Connecticut’s positivity rate has risen to over 2 percent and all of the state’s eight counties, as of Tuesday, are considered to have “substantial” community spread. Gov. Ned Lamont and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are advising people, even if they are vaccinated, to again wear masks indoors
That said, the CIAC remains on course to start the fall season on time and, with safety protocols again in place, to run it in full, complete with state championships.
The CIAC was not caught by surprise by the changing COVID metrics. Nor, with the lessons learned from 2020-21, does it feel unprepared.
“We have anticipated that we would be managing some elements of COVID at least through another year, but we feel we have a lot more information, a lot more data this year from the sports that we were able to play last year, and that we can safely compete,” CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said Tuesday.
“So we were planning for an on-time start for our fall seasons. We are planning full fall seasons and we’re planning fall state championships as well. We’ll get started as early as August 12, when the OTA days start for football.”
This, of course, is a far cry from last summer, when so much was unknown about COVID-19 and vaccines were months away. The fall season was delayed, then heavily truncated without state tournaments. Football was cancelled.
In essence, the CIAC was piloting a boat in the fog.
“It’s a good analogy. I think the difference this year is we have GPS to help manage our way through the fog,” Lungarini said. “We have data. We do know some things that were effective in mitigating the spread, both before we had vaccines and when vaccines were available.”
Like last year, the CIAC will continue to issue safety protocols to its member schools. The fall season will likely look much like the spring: masks for indoor activities, no masks for outdoor activities, at least not on the field of play. They will likely be recommended to be worn in locker rooms and buses.
“We have good information that shows those strategies were successful,” said Lungarini.
The CIAC is also recommending student-athletes get vaccinated. It isn’t a mandate. It is a strong recommendation being made in conjunction with the state Department of Public Health.
“We haven’t had any discussions about mandating vaccines; we do understand that choosing to get the vaccine is a personal choice,” Lungarini remarked. “That being said, both our medical professionals that we consult with and the medical experts at DPH feel this is the best way that we can protect our kids and our communities: for those who are eligible to get vaccinated to do so.”
Vaccinations don’t merely protect against the virus, Lungarini noted, they protect against the fallout of exposure. Vaccinated students who are considered a close contact won’t have to quarantine so long as they are not showing any symptoms of illness.
Last year, in all three seasons, several area teams were sidelined en masse by contact tracing.
“I feel the best way our kids can experience a full season and we could limit the number of quarantines and have successful postseason tournaments would be for those who are eligible to get vaccinated to do so,” said Lungarini. “But, again, we’re not making that a mandate. We’re simply joining DPH and encouraging that at this time.”
The CIAC Board of Control meets on August 26. The CIAC, though, will likely issue its fall protocols sooner than that.
There’s a balance to be struck, as far as timing goes. The CIAC wants to get information out before the preseason kicks in, yet not so fast as to be ahead of the latest COVID data or any new directives from the state.
The CDC is recommending students and staff, whether vaccinated or not, wear masks in school. Lamont has said he’ll soon be making the call for Connecticut. Until then, his previous order requiring masks in schools remains in effect till September 30.
In the meantime, with preseason approaching at a time when COVID is flaring, Lungarini takes comfort in a successful CIAC spring sports season that’s been followed by a good summer.
“While we’re just seeing a bit of a spike in the Delta variant now, we haven’t heard of any outbreaks among sports teams over the summer, and a lot of those summer programs do travel throughout the country,” the CIAC executive director noted. “I think we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned how to do things safely.
“At the same time, we need to be cautious and we need to be purposeful in the mitigation of COVID to help keep our kids safe. I think we can do this in a safe manner.”