(Oct. 2, 2020) Gov. Larry Hogan and State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon raised the hopes of many when they announced last Thursday the return of fall sports in Maryland, with each local school system having the ability to officially start the interscholastic athletic fall season in secondary schools on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

“Getting our kids back on the playing field and allowing youth sports to resume this fall is critical for the social and mental well-being of our students,” Gov. Hogan said. “Now that all 24 jurisdictions have submitted plans to resume in-person instruction, allowing fall sports to begin next month marks another important step on our road to recovery.”

But as of this week, nearly all local school systems are sticking with the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association’s Roadmap for Return to Interscholastic Athletics and Extracurricular Activities Two-Semester Plan released two weeks ago, and will not start the fall sports season on Oct. 7.

Shortly after Hogan’s press conference, the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland released a statement on behalf of the 24 public school superintendents.

“All superintendents, along with our local boards of education, have been working diligently to maneuver the complexities of transitioning students back into the classroom. While not insurmountable, these logistics pose significant operational challenges as we adhere to the CDC health and safety guidelines, and monitor local health metrics,” the statement reads. “Additionally, each local school system was required to submit an interscholastic athletic and co-curricular activity plan as part of our local recovery plans, and all allowed for some level of out-of-season play. The local plans were approved by the state and many of these activities are currently underway or scheduled to begin in the next few weeks.”

The group states it is eager to see students back in school for in-person learning, as well as on the playing fields and participating in other co-curricular activities.

“Additionally, if access to sports and other co-curricular activities is only available to students who are privately transported to school, we are exacerbating inequities we are already facing during this pandemic,” the statement read.

“We understand and appreciate the social and emotional toll on students in this virtual environment, and we are keenly aware of the physical and mental benefits of athletics and other co-curricular activities,” the association continued. “Public school systems, like many other businesses, industries, and even government agencies, are wrestling with a ‘return to normal;’ however, the bar must be higher when it comes to our children.

“We have learned so much more about this disease since the initial months of quarantine, and there is certainly more unknown, which makes it even more imperative that we get this right. As we return to classrooms, so too will we return to play, but the timing may not be perfectly aligned.”

The MPSSAA consulted with the Maryland State Department of Education, Maryland Department of Health and Public Schools Superintendents Association of Maryland on the hybrid two-semester plan, which focuses on “student engagement options in the first semester and modified competition seasons for all sports during the second semester.”

It was developed to allow the 24 Maryland local school systems flexibility to maximize participation opportunities for the engagement of students during the first semester and sets a plan for sport competition in the second semester.

Worcester County Public Schools and the other school systems each set up Return to Play committees. For Worcester, the committee was made up of the three high school athletic directors, two principals, one athletic supervisor, one male and one female coach from each school, one trainer and one assistant superintendent.

The group came up with a plan for the first semester, which was approved by both Superintendent Lou Taylor and the MPSSAA.

“The committee worked very hard. A tremendous amount of time and conversation went into it,” Dr. Dwayne Abt, WCPS assistant superintendent and chief safety and human relations officer, said. “They went back to the drawing board several times…”

The MPSSAA plan allows for out-of-season participation in all sports. Local school systems can create any combination of virtual practices or in-person conditioning, skill-building sessions, sport-specific practices, intramurals, and intra-school/inter-school scrimmages.

Worcester County Public Schools opened on Monday for in-person learning for a small group (18 percent) of students. If all goes well, another group will return on Oct. 12, then another on Oct. 26.

Worcester County Public Schools as well as the other 17 schools in the Bayside Conference are currently adhering to the MPSSAA approved two-semester plan.

Taylor admitted he was taken aback a bit by Gov. Hogan and Dr. Salmon’s announcement last week.

“I want nothing more than to have kids back on the athletic field, buts there’s got to be some consistency … We’ve got to all work together collectively,” Taylor said. “I’m a big sports fan. I feel it as much as anybody. Safety is paramount. The No. 1 goal is to not put kids, coaches, in a bad situation.”

According to Worcester County Public Schools’ Athletics & Extracurricular Activity Plan for semester 1, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 31, all spring sports are permitted to have virtual practices, in-person conditioning, skill-building sessions, sport-specific practices, intramurals, and pending approval by the superintendent, inter/intra-school scrimmages.

With a number of safety protocols in place, spring sports practices kicked off Monday and Abt said everything was going remarkably well so far.

From Nov. 2 to Dec. 9, fall sports teams can participate in those same activities. Winter sports teams will be permitted to take part in activities from Dec. 10 to Jan. 29.

Semester 1 training sessions are open to all athletes. Coaches are not permitted to conduct tryouts. Teams may not be established for the second semester during the first semester.

The second semester runs from Feb. 1 to June 19. The MPSSAA has laid out modified sports seasons. Each sports season will have a 20-calendar day preseason and five weeks of competition.

All sports will have the opportunity to play between 50 and 100 percent of their typical season allotment of competitions.

Each sport will be evaluated by the MPSSAA on an individual basis to determine if there will be state tournaments or championships.

The first up will be winter sports, with practices taking place Feb. 1-21. Feb. 22 to March 27 will be the competition season.

The second season will be for fall sports. Practices are slated from March 15 to April 4. The competition season will run from April 5 to May 8.

The third season will be for spring sports. Practices will be held from April 26 to May 16. The competition season will be from May 17 to June 19.

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