New COVID-19 guidelines change the game for sports teams

The return of fall sports was not a guarantee this year amid a global pandemic. However, thanks to many hours of meetings between state and local committees, most of the high school’s sports teams are competing once again.

Following months of preparation, seven out of the high school’s ten fall sports teams began their seasons on Sep. 21. Coaches, athletic directors and public health officials met across several state and local agencies to discuss guidelines and regulations for the safe return of certain High School sports. Although these regulations change some significant aspects of these sports, the athletes are still able to enjoy some sense of normalcy by competing.

According to Athletics Director Pete Rittenburg, administrators took note of leagues across the country that had already begun their seasons.

“We’ve been following things throughout the whole summer, including information from other states on earlier timelines,” Rittenburg said. “We were watching what kind of approaches seem to be working, not working and how they were responding to changing public health conditions.”

Rittenburg says the Executive office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) was in charge of making decisions about outdoor recreational activities including high school sports. Early in the summer, the EEA released regulations that classified different sports at different levels of play as either low risk, moderate risk or high risk regarding COVID-19 transmission. These levels of play range from individual training at level one, to tournaments and multi-school events, such as swim and cross country meets, at level four. According to Rittenburg, the goal for the season was to play at level three, which allows for teams from different high schools to compete.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (MIAA) COVID-19 task force came up with guidelines based on the EEA regulations. The MIAA approved a four season model that includes the normal timeline for Winter and Spring seasons and divides Fall into “Fall 1” and “Fall 2” seasons for high risk fall sports such as cheerleading and football, said Rittenburg.

Once the larger scale guidelines were set in place, more specific regulations needed to be made for individual sports.

“Every single fall sport committee within the MIAA had to then take those EEA guidelines and figure out how to modify a sport in order for it to be played at a level three,” Rittenburg said. “You’ll see in the guidelines that there’s a big focus on mask wearing, social distancing and individual equipment.”

Coming up with the specific guidelines involved constant back and forth between sports committees and public health officials.

“We made recommendations and [public health officials] came back with, ‘we don’t like this or that.’ The final guidelines were released at the very end of August,” Rittenburg said. “From there, leagues and individual schools had to go ahead and decide what they could and couldn’t do.”

According to Rittenburg, Brookline Athletics usually competes with nine other schools, but this year those nine teams were split into pods of four and five teams. Brookline is in the five school pod with Newton North, Natick, Needham and Wellesley.

“We’ve also set it up so that each week we will only play one opponent school,” Rittenburg said. “Our intent there is to limit travel and contact; in the case that we had to do contact tracing it would be easier.”

Rittenburg said once the specific plans were made on how to play fall sports, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) required that the athletics department get full Brookline School Committee (BSC) approval for the return of fall sports.

Rittenburg said he is confident that the Fall 1 season will be safe and he feels the teams are well prepared.

“There’s been a lot of cooperation and a lot of behind the scenes work. It’s nice to finally have what feels like a defined mission after a summer’s worth of a million questions without answers,” Rittenburg said. “This is what we have in place to keep people safe– that was the main goal. So, you’re going into a situation with your eyes open and you know that it’s been vetted by several different state agencies.”

The regulations for field hockey do not compromise the benefit of playing for senior Clementine Hawkins, captain of the girls varsity field hockey team.

“It’s still the most normal part of my day. Just being on the field with the varsity soccer and people running; it almost feels like we’re back to normal,” Hawkins said.

Rittenburg said he understands the important social and emotional effects sports has.

“I grew up myself as a student athlete and being able to play your sport in the afternoon, essentially every day, you really take that for granted,” Rittenburg said. “And when it’s taken away, you can see for real what it can do to people, the effects it has on mental health, physical health and general wellbeing.”

Boys Varsity Soccer Coach Kyle Beaulieu-Jones has made preserving these social and emotional benefits one of the goals for his season.

“I hope to get some experience with the underclassmen who will be playing next year. So that way they don’t lose a year and they continue to have that experience and growth,” Beaulieu-Jones said. “And really just to create an environment where these athletes can socialize, have fun, be teenagers and be active in a safe way.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced Rittenburg to change his objectives for the season.

“It’s winning redefined,” Rittenburg said. “This fall, winning to me is getting into November safely. That’s winning.”

New adjustments:

According to senior and varsity girls captain Lindsey Mahoney, COVID-19 regulations on the soccer team have prevented players from heading the ball, changed corner kicks, outlawed any intentional contact between players. Masks are required at all times. Mahoney said this has forced players to shift away from pushing others around, especially when playing defense. The changes have also brought new goals to the season.

“My hope is that we still get that same enjoyable experience [and that we] get to have lots of fun with it, even though we may not have state championships,” Mahoney said.

Field Hockey
Senior and captain of girls varsity field hockey Clementine Hawkins said regulations have required all players to wear masks at all times. Additionally, the number of players during games has changed. Instead of the previous 11 players per team on the field, there will now be only seven. Despite the decrease of players, the team size has remained relatively the same to allow for more substitution. Fewer players on the field also means more running. Players will be more tired and need frequent substitutions.

“I’m grateful we even get the opportunity to play but it’s definitely bittersweet that it won’t be exactly the same,” Hawkins said.

Swim and Dive
Senior and captain of girls swim and dive Rebecca Ngyuen said COVID-19 regulations have limited the team to 24 total athletes and other strict regulations control their distance from one another. Masks are required at all times when they are out of the pool. Meets are held virtually with each team submitting their scores to each other. The swimmers are no longer permitted to pass one another and lanes must be divided up to maintain proper distance. Nguyen said the new rules have impacted the team dynamic.

“There has been a loss of connection between the girls. It’s really sad,” Nguyen said.

Despite this, she congratulates her teammates. “The girls have handled all the changes very well,” she said “They have all been so mature in their adjustment to the changes.”

Cross Country
According to freshman Gigi McMahon, the cross country teams have created “pods” of ten or fewer athletes to train together in order to reduce contact. Runners are expected to wear face masks whenever they are within six feet of someone but are permitted to remove them otherwise. During meets, instead of everyone starting at once, there will be waves every 90 seconds to space out the runners. The team is trying its best to make the season feel as normal as possible while still keeping athletes safe and comfortable. McMahon is currently participating in her first season and is noticing the differences from past seasons on different teams.

“This season is definitely much shorter than it usually was,” McMahon said, “There’s only four scheduled meets as of right now and there used to be more than double that which is kind of disappointing, especially for seniors having their last season.”

Senior and captain Mike Ford said the changes require athletes to wear face masks only when they are within six feet of someone else. They now need to keep flag sticks in when putting and can no longer shake hands or exchange scorecards at the end of the match. Ford said he is satisfied with his team’s compliance so far this season.

“We’re doing a really great job keeping our distance,” Ford said, “We’re all happy to be out there and not behind a screen.”

Girls cross country has had to adjust their practice by splitting up into pods to reduce contact. (Contributed by Abby Manuel )
Field hockey has reduced the number of girls allowed on the field which has increased the number of substitutions during games. (Contributed by Clemmie Hawkins )