Q&A with NFHS Executive Director Dr. Karissa Niehoff: ‘If there are no fall championships, state associations … will be in pretty dire straits financially’

Karissa Niehoff, the Executive Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, fielded questions from reporters in a virtual press conference Monday regarding the return to high school sports from a national perspective.

Here’s a look at the most relevant questions and answers as they pertain to California high school sports.

(Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.)

Niehoff’s opening remarks: Our guidelines and our guidance for return approach sports from a risk perspective. Schools and state associations considered that guidance for return and are using that to some degree to make their own decisions in their states. Again, they’re working with their Governor’s office, they’re working with their state education agencies and the state health agencies to make those decisions. And we’re seeing that even within states, depending on population density, depending on the numbers of COVID-19 contagion and hospitalization, we need to be looking at trends in a staged process to make decisions. So it’s very likely that within a state itself, you’ll see some school districts that are back to activity, other school districts that are not, and even some school districts that are delaying sports seasons altogether.

A couple of models that we’re seeing emerge involve a January to June approach for all seasons of sport. In some states, we’re seeing a two-season approach, and in other states we’re actually seeing an abbreviated three-season approach. So as we watch these decisions emerge, we’re going to see a patchwork across the country.

One of the things that’s very consistent is that states across the country want kids to be back. You want kids to be participating in activities for a number of reasons. There’s a lot of energy right now around what we’re seeing at the youth level in club sports and recreational opportunities, as well as at the collegiate level where very powerful Division One leagues, the Ivy League and smaller D1 leagues have actually decided to cancel their fall seasons. The NFHS and our member state associations want to be clear in our messaging that we are different and we are different because we are education based. And by that, we’re looking to not just to focus on athletics and activities, but also at getting kids back to school.

There’s research coming out of Wisconsin where over 3,000 student athletes were researched and reported over three times greater incidence of depression likely linked to not being able to engage in school and in their co-curricular programs. We want to make sure that in our education based environment, we’re paying attention not just to COVID, but also to the emotional and mental wellness of our students, looking at why our students need to engage in those activities. There’s a wealth of research about the impact of participation and co-curricular programming on actual perseverance in school, in learning those life skills unique to those co-curricular programs and how those life skills carry on through further study, through pursuing careers. And there’s a lot of research about folks who are leading business organizations saying a lot of the leadership skills that they learned are directly tied to their participations in high school sport and activity.

So we are very much supportive of kids coming back, assuming that there are the safeguards in place. Obviously, the attention to the situation at the local level and the guidelines from their education organizations and health agencies is paramount. But the high school experience is different from youth sport and it is different from the collegiate level. So we wanted to be sure that part of our message today and dialogue with each of you has to do with the reason why we may be promoting a different position, if you will, from some other organizations. We believe kids need to return, of course, in the safest manner possible.

Question: How realistic is it to believe high school sports can resume this season without testing for athletes and staff?

Niehoff: That’s a great question. And I think we need to be clear about what type of testing we’re talking about when we talk about testing. We’re seeing our schools and our co-curricular programs look at a thermometer, a non-contact temperature check and you’ve probably seen those devices, to monitor temperature. Obviously, we know that a lot of our COVID-19 carriers may be asymptomatic. I think what we will see as we phase into school and activity is some form of on site testing with regard to temperature check. We’ll see our students in their in classrooms wearing masks and we’ll see social distancing in the classroom, maybe even using outdoor facilities or gymnasiums for classrooms. If kids are back on campus, we will likely see a phase in, certainly to sports like cross country, golf, and tennis. In some states, those individual sports are in the fall. Other states they are in spring.

More full contact sports like football, I think we will see a delay. Is it likely that we will be playing football as we’ve previously scheduled it to be, without testing, without mitigation? I don’t know. Each individual state will be making those decisions.

I think, quite frankly, we are in a pattern of delays for the higher risk sports like football, whereas other sports will engage in more traditional competition earlier.

Iowa, as you know, they’re already playing baseball and softball, entering into championships, and they have a plan in place. They are actually seeing schools that have had to quarantine. I think that’s what we will be seeing across the country.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that we will not see testing that reveals a positive case. There probably will be positive cases. The actual symptoms that develop are mild for our young people. But we certainly are seeing state associations developing action plans for how to isolate and ultimately quarantine any positive tests.

I think we will see a phased in approach closely aligned with whether or not kids will be back in classrooms. (Tuesday) afternoon we have another roundtable with executive directors. We will be discussing strategies for actually implementing sports if, in fact, kids are not back into classrooms, probably talking about outdoor sports, if they’re not, in fact, with one another in an indoor setting.

I think it’s likely we’ll go back. But it’ll be phased in. And is it likely we might see positive cases? Yes. But as we mentioned early on, we have to be paying attention to the well-being of our kids from a learning perspective and the impact that engagement in co-curricular programs has on their growth and development. There’s research showing kids learn better when they are engaged in co-curricular programs. So we want to see a comprehensive consideration as we make those decisions.

Question: How concerned are state associations about the prospect of not being able to play football this fall, given its financial importance? And is this is a concern for the long term health of high school sports?

Niehoff: State associations are very concerned. When we surveyed our states before the end of the calendar school year, we heard from our state associations that just with the loss of winter and spring championships, we were seeing a 100 to 150 thousand all the way up to excess of two million dollar loss to state association revenues.

If there are no fall championships, state associations, some of them, will be in pretty dire straits financially and absolutely having to dip into reserves to fund championships going forward, at least for a year. This is not a one year problem. If there are no fall championships and no fall sports for our schools and districts, there are revenue impacts there that go far beyond this one calendar year.

So we are very concerned from a financial perspective, but we’re also concerned from a community perspective and we’re advocating at a federal level for any bill that would support back-funding education itself, not just focusing on supporting funding for youth sports, but really looking at funding for the school districts, out of which comes co-curricular activities for schools.

Question: Is the NFHS recommending any liability waivers to schools or state organizations to hold events?

Niehoff: We are not out of our office recommending any kinds of waivers. We do not function as an oversight organization in terms of accountability or authority. So, again, as I mentioned earlier, school districts are governed by LEA’s, public school districts and certainly state education agencies and they make decisions that have more to do with oversight than we do.

We do provide guidance. Our guidance is heavily emphasized on education, on sharing information with stakeholders: parents, kids, school personnel. And we do know that schools require free participation physicals. Many of our schools do education sessions for parents and kids and some of those decisions we are absolutely seeing that schools are asking for waivers. In a situation attempting to sanction events that are across state lines, many of them are asking for waivers. Our state association executive directors and commissioners are asking to share with one another what waivers they are seeing emerge in states. So we recommend education, information and caution. But we also recommend we get kids back.

Question: What are your thoughts on having fans at events?

Niehoff: So, again, some of these decisions are going to be made based on the dynamics and situations that exist at local levels. We would like to see fans in the stands. Our state associations and schools are doing a great job already planning for that.

Some questions we see are: what is the strategy to implement some social distancing in terms of seats in the bleachers? Will concession stands be open? If there are concession stands, are we using appropriate safeguards like masks and gloves? And what kinds of foods and beverages are we selling? Are X’s on the pavement where people stand?

So all of the things that we’re experiencing when we go to a grocery store, those are similar things that our schools are considering as they get people back into the stands. We also know that the virtual environment is going to be hugely important so that if schools are not back in terms of bringing fans into gymnasiums to watch volleyball or onto field sidelines themselves, is there a way that we can capture these events and actually broadcast them?

So the Pixellot initiative that I shared earlier is hugely important for schools if fans are not able to come back into gymnasiums or onto fields. But we support an effort where if you’re bringing kids back to competition to find a way to allow fans to come back. If you have the staffing and the strategies in place to bring folks back into the arenas and the venues so they can enjoy the events as well, please do.

Question: What was your reaction to the recent Wisconsin study that you referenced? How concerned are you for the athletes’ mental or emotional well-being if fall sports are canceled?

Niefoff: Very concerned. I think the Wisconsin study is a microcosm of the national scene for kids. When I was a teacher, a coach, an AD and a principal and taught health and wellness, I learned that the most important thing you need to pay attention to regarding our kids, especially in the scholastic age group, is how they’re doing. How are they feeling? How are they developing?

The keys to kids, especially at the high school level, are relationships and developing their identity, developing their skill sets, developing their capacity for tolerating challenge and overcoming adversity, developing leadership skills, communication skills, and teamwork. All of these concepts are almost cliche when we ask what business leaders and people that are hiring people in the workplace are looking for? It’s probably no secret. They look at resumes and look for, did this young person participate in sport? Did this person participate in band or do something else to develop another talent?

We are most concerned that kids in that study self reported an increase in anxiety, an increase in depression, an increase in the thoughts of suicide, an increase in the feelings of apathy, and of disconnect. And the co-curricular environment is absolutely the environment that allows them to develop their skills and talents, to socialize, to engage with a team, to engage in an activity that they can develop their own skills within a larger environment.

It’s different from academics. So that’s why the co-curricular program really is the second half of the school day and very important for kids. We know that kids will tell us that the co-curricular experience engages them in school. They come to school. They apply themselves to do well in school so that they can participate after school. A lot of kids report that. So all of those things that we see in the research and now we see emerging in the Wisconsin study are top on our radar and really is what’s driving our message about the need to get back, to do it safely, and do it appropriately, but we’ve got to reconnect with our kids.

Question: Do you expect to see officials’ shortages in the fall and do you expect to see any special protocols that they should be aware of?

Niehoff: Fantastic question. So the NFHS released some considerations for adaptations to rules in playing sports, not hugely impactful to how the game is played, but for example, in volleyball, do you actually need to switch benches at some point in the match? That’s an easy one to overcome when you talk about social distancing.

We also released some considerations for officials regarding the use of electronic whistles as opposed to handheld, the pre-season meetings and social distancing there, as well as actually looking and touching equipment and things like that. So officials were also provided some things that they can consider to encourage them to feel a little more comfortable about going back. That being said, are we anticipating a further shortage? Yes. In some sports, the average age of an official is upwards of 50 years old. We know there will be officials that are concerned about going back, especially in areas where the COVID-19 numbers are still concerning and not on the decline. We don’t at this moment have a sense as to what those officials numbers are. We won’t really know until we get back in the competition. But certainly, as that happens, we will be able to report to each of you what we’re seeing out there. So, yes, we are very concerned. There’s already a shortage in many sports. So we want to do our best to allow officials to feel a little more comfortable with some considerations for how they might change their their usual protocols.

Question: You spoke about the number of states that have moved back the start of their sport seasons to January and holding shortened seasons. With a lot of experts saying the winter months might be worse in terms of COVID-19, would it be better to play low risk sports in the fall instead of moving everything back with the possibility of having to cancel again?

Niehoff: We’ve had some states actually consider that saying as we go back, let’s do golf, cross-country, swimming and diving, and tennis. Let’s run those guys in the fall and then in the middle — whatever time line that is, the middle season — have it be some of your moderately risked sports, such as your field sports like baseball, softball, maybe even soccer and lacrosse depending on what definition we’re using in terms of risk or exposure. And then do your highest risk sports like wrestling and football. I think we might consider basketball here too. We hear two different opinions on basketball, if that’s a higher risk or not, so some states might do that in the final season.

Now in the next few days, a lot of our gray states on that map are going to be making decisions. So what is gray is not what is definite right now. We know that what is blue is what is definite right now, today, but even over night, that could be changing.

Question: How closely did you monitor the baseball and softball seasons in Iowa and how did you feel that went?

Niehoff: We monitored that very closely. I think the whole nation did. As soon as they made the decision that they were going to continue, I reached out to both the girls and boys Executive Directors and I got back a very thorough description of the processes and procedures that they had put into place, as well as clear communications with their schools. This is optional and a great majority of their schools did opt in. A handful did not. The handful happened to be in the more densely populated areas, but as they are majority and more rural, the schools opted to go ahead and try to play.

As we mentioned earlier, a few did have COVID positive tests. Those kids in those schools were quarantined for two weeks and they actually are just starting their tournaments for baseball first and then softball. So Iowa has managed to go ahead and implement two successful sports seasons with strategies in place to deal with COVID. We have not gotten information that any serious illnesses had occurred and we have not heard that there has been any spread of COVID with respect to being a part of a sport situation. In fact, just last week we heard that we had no reports that there were any contact tracing incidents with regard to baseball or softball in Iowa.

Question: One of the issues that this brings up is the issue of transfer eligibility in a lot of states. How should state associations handle those, such as transfers from a school district not opening in the fall to one that is or move-ins from out of state?

Niehoff: This is something we’re talking about. You have some states, I’ll use Kentucky as an example, I believe Kentucky borders 10 or 12 states. And we’re hearing that there are families that are telling their schools and state associations that if there are no sports this fall, they’re moving. They say, we’re going to go over somewhere else. I can still commute to work, but I’m just moving. And that’s a legal transfer.

It’s hard to deal with that when there’s a legitimate change of address. It’s a hard thing to fight. If student athletes do not change their address and try to transfer schools, what’s really important is that the transfer is not made for athletic purposes and that generally falls onto the shoulders of the principals to say I support the transfer, there was an issue here at the school, we couldn’t service the needs, what have you. I support the transfer to another school.

Most states have public to public transfer eyeballs on why those kids are moving. I don’t necessarily support that states relax transfer rules simply because the home school district is trying to keep people safe and trying to keep kids safe.

I think that’s a little bit shortsighted because that to me clearly indicates that parents are trying to put sport over their learning environment here. If where they’re coming from is not a safe area to go to school, who knows if they’re asymptomatic and they’re bringing the environment from where they live to another district? We don’t know.

So I think for a lot of reasons I would be cautious if I were an association looking at relaxing transfer rules. And then you think too, if a student athlete comes from another district and we recognize it’s pretty much a relaxed transfer rule, are they either going to unseat another person on the team who’s a legitimate resident and a legitimate student who has been in the school? There’s some of those other peripheral things to consider, too, that are dynamics relative to transfers. So with all that being said, we know state association decisions are often member driven decisions. So member schools may, in fact, through their boards of control and boards of directors, vote to approve some of those transfer rule changes. So I lock elbows with our state association offices, our brethren there, but we appreciate how decisions are made in states. So guidance and perspective are my thoughts, but I fully appreciate how states are governed.

Thank you for joining the discussion on SBLive!

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