Gov. Larry Hogan and state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon cleared the way for high school sports to resume in Maryland during a visit to Frederick Thursday.
After touring the Frederick County Career and Technology Center, Hogan and Salmon announced that formal high school sports practices can begin Oct. 7 with the goal of beginning a fall sports season Oct. 27.
The state officials cited improving COVID-19 metrics across the state for reaching their decision. But they provided no formal guidance on how to safely make it happen or overcome the myriad of logistical challenges of starting a fall sports season when the weather is turning colder and it is typically winding down.
At a time when most students are learning virtually, and haven't returned to school buildings in large numbers, the decision to conduct a high school sports season will be left to each individual school district. All retain the right to opt out of this plan.
If they choose to do so, they can implement the state athletic governing body's already released plan to play abbreviated fall, winter and spring seasons in the second semester, beginning in February.
Following the governor's announcement, Montgomery County Public Schools announced it would not conduct a sports season this fall.
The Frederick County Board of Education will ultimately make the decision for Frederick County Public Schools athletics. The issue is likely to be front-and-center at the next Board of Education meeting Oct. 7.
In the meantime, Board President Brad Young said the board will defer to FCPS' Return to Play Committee for further guidance.
The committee was formed in June to help facilitate the return of high school sports and had previously allowed voluntary, non-contact conditioning and skills-based workouts to occur over the summer and into the school year.
"There are a lot of unknowns still there about how to do this safely," Young said.
Hogan said parents have been strongly encouraging him to bring high school sports back, going as far as to protest outside of his Annapolis home.
Additionally, a group of parents and students rallied outside the Frederick County Board of Education office during its meeting on Wednesday.
When asked about the timing of this decision, Hogan said, "Our health metrics have hit record lows every single day for the past week, and we have been trending downward for more than three months. Because we now have all 24 jurisdictions with a plan to bring some kids back in class, we thought it was time to address this.
"We have been working on this for months. I think the State Department of Education and all of our health experts thought we were able to move forward."
Hogan also cited that many youth sports leagues have already resumed playing.
"We are not going to do anything that endangers our kids," he said. "But we think it's really important to try and make efforts to get more of them back into face-to-face instruction and give them some of the sports activity that they also need."
Salmon noted that, if school systems opt out or implement the second-semester plan outlined by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, nearly a calendar year will pass without some students having any involvement in sports or athletic activities.
"It's just very concerning," she said.
FCPS supervisor of athletics and extracurricular activities Kevin Kendro said the school system and Return for Play Committee will follow the procedures they had already been following.
He said the school system takes great pride in how much the communities value high school sports. He said that FCPS adheres to the guidance of the Frederick County Health Department and MPSSAA in developing any return-to-play plans.
The fall sports season for high schools in Maryland consists of football, boys and girls soccer, field hockey, volleyball, cross country and golf.
The season typically starts at the beginning of September. By the middle of November, most sports have completed their seasons except for football. Its 14-week season usually concludes during the first week of December.
Under the directive from Hogan and Salmon, golf will be able to resume competition on Oct. 7, just as the other sports are able to begin practices.
The fall season will run from Oct. 27 to Dec. 12. Any playoffs would take place between Dec. 14 and 19.
Winter sports —basketball, wrestling, swimming and diving and indoor track and field — could begin practice on Dec. 14, while spring sports — lacrosse, baseball, softball, tennis, track and field, could start practice as soon as Jan. 4.
Hogan and Salmon said additional details would be coming from the MPSSAA.
"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," Hogan said.
Among the unanswered questions is whether spectators will be allowed at the sporting events. Hogan said that all gatherings must be capped at 250, per his own administration's guidelines to combat the novel coronavirus.
Young wondered if the schools would be required to administer temperature checks prior to each athletic contest and be responsible for getting students to games who can't get there on their own.
"How do we do this without most of our kids being in school?" he said. "There are a lot of questions that need to be answered."