by Andrew Garda
While New Jersey begins to open sports up again and Montclair Kimberley Academy starts to examine how to prepare for the beginning of practices, Montclair High School hasn’t even had fall coaches approved.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) issued a statement on Friday, June 12, that high schools may begin planning for summer practices, which are slated to begin on or around Monday, July 13.
In addition, on Monday, June 15, the state Department of Health issued a memo containing guidance for outdoor organized sports. It addresses youth and adult club sports, which can resume on June 22, as well as high school sports.
MHS cannot really plan for those eventualities, though, and according to interim Superintendent Dr. Nathan Parker even though there aren’t any plans to change the status of the fall coaches, they still must be approved by the Montclair Board of Education. As for summer practices, what they will look like is still at question, given the coaches are not under contract and have not been approved.
“Currently, it is not on the schedule,” Parker said of the coaching appointments. “[Coaches] would need some sort of appointment. At this point we are still working out our plans.”
Allowing for summer practice does not necessarily mean there is a fall season, said Parker.
“We are at a time of great uncertainty,” he added
Liability is among several concerns the district must consider.
Cougars Get to Work
As MHS’ coaches await word that they can get to work, across town Montclair Kimberley Athletic Director Todd Smith was already in action, crafting an email to send to MKA’s Return to Play Task Force.
The purpose of the email, which was sent out on Monday, June 15, and shared with Montclair Local, was to give the group an opportunity to begin piecing together its plan for summer practices to hit the ground running on July 13.
Smith wrote that at minimum, getting the sports that traditionally work out during the summer, such as football, field hockey and both boys and girls soccer, will be a focus.
Along with scheduling, which the school may try to balance by working out timing on alternating days, Smith listed several guidelines, questions, and points the task force has to consider things like training sessions lasting no more than 60 to 90 minutes, temperature testing for all athletes and coaches, not allowing the sharing of equipment or water bottles, potentially not having bathroom access, and whether other teams might want or need training time and space.
It’s a long, but not exhaustive list that Smith expects will change and grow as MKA examines the guidelines from the state.
“I think if we can get back safely and start to work out as a team — even if all the work is individual and we maintain all social distancing guidelines — that is great for our players, as a sense of normalcy would really help them after the time away from each other,” head football coach Anthony Rea said.
“I know guidance for these workouts is still being created, so I don’t have the details on what it may look like, but I think it would be a great first step to getting our high school athletes back on the field,” he added.
Boys soccer coach Rob Leather is hopeful the NJSIAA and state’s decision to open practices in July means positive things not just for the summer, but for a potential fall season.
“Above all for me, it is a commitment by the NJSIAA to set forth a timeline that will see us start the season on time in September,” Leather said “Coupled with the positive numbers in New Jersey, I am more hopeful than ever we will see a somewhat normal season for the boys, and other fall athletes at MKA. I am sure there will be further communication at the county level, but now that the state has shown its support we can move forward with more detailed planning.”
While there are many steps between now and July 13 — much less September and a potential beginning to fall sports seasons — MKA is doing what it can to prepare for both eventualities.
With his status in limbo, Ashley Hammond has been trying to encourage his players and provide support when possible, but the MHS girls soccer coach has his hands tied when it comes to any summer planning.
“We await guidance from the Montclair Board of Ed and the Montclair athletic department as to what we are and are not allowed to do,” Hammond said. “Until such time, we can’t do anything.”
MHS football coach John Fiore was hoping approvals would come quickly, because it would give MHS coaches the same chance to start working on the guidelines and protocols that MKA’s group is building on now.
That way, when teams can finally practice, everyone will already be prepared.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity to start working with our kids, working on these COVID-19 protocols, getting really efficient at them,” Fiore said. “But I’ve been told by our athletic director until the board approves us, we’re not allowed to work with our kids.”
That could mean MHS teams are trying to figure out how to manage all the various COVID-19 guidelines at the last minute, and aside from the critical practical considerations, coaches are concerned that if other districts and schools are ready to go immediately at the start date, MHS teams will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
Private schools like MKA and Seton Hall Prep, as well as other public school districts, will potentially have already had time to adapt their practices and requirements to the “new normal” of the coronavirus, while Mountie programs are just getting going.
Without BOE approval Montclair High can’t do that as effectively. Even having coaches work on a volunteer basis could raise liability issues, as might opening up fields to teams without those same coaches approved by the BOE.
For Hammond, even just giving him the official BOE go-ahead with the understanding that there’s no guarantee of a fall season would be enough if he gets to work with his athletes.
“If come Aug. 30 they tell us we’re not going to have a season, I would not be upset,” he said. “I would feel that I’ve served the kids well and given them a month or so of training when they needed it. And if we all get shut down again, then so be it. If they don’t pay me, I’m okay with that. But I’m not everyone.”
There’s the potential that some coaches may leave Montclair for schools that will commit to them and allow them to get started immediately.
Part of the issue could be budgetary.
The school district had to pay the spring coaches for a season that never happened, and it recently had to contend with a $7.5 million budget shortfall. While that was dealt with, it required some staff positions to potentially be cut, and the district might balk at allocating money for a season that is uncertain at best.
That could result in the unfortunate circumstance that MHS teams will find themselves behind their competition in terms of preparation, if fall sports seasons actually begin in September.
The state Department of Health memo is a thorough breakdown of risk categories and guidelines.
“The guidance permits practices and competitions for low-risk sports (golf, tennis) that do not involve contact, and modified no-contact practices for medium-risk (soccer, baseball, softball) and high-risk (football) sports,” the memo stated.
“Traditional practices and competitions for medium-risk sports are expected to be allowed as of July 6, and on July 20 for high-risk sports. As of now, only outdoor activities will be permitted.”
The memo instructs programs reopening for practices to create a plan that covers everything from potentially having assistants to help keep social distancing occurring among athletes and coaching staff, to staggering practice schedules among teams, to encouraging programs to educate parents, coaches, and players about COVID-19.
It also outlines ideas for preparing facilities for reopening, conducting practices, and preparing for games and tournaments.
Meanwhile, the NJSIAA cautioned that giving the green light to workouts and practices is not a promise that fall sports seasons will happen.
“While we’re hopeful school-based athletics will start soon, the public needs to understand that high school sports are unique in that, unlike recreational programs, they must be in sync with our schools,” NJSIAA chief operating officer Colleen Maguire said in the email. “Scholastic sports are part of the curriculum; they don’t operate independently.”