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Despite Connecticut COVID-19 Spike, CIAC Approves Winter High School Sports

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Putnam Science Academy Girls Basketball player Yamani McCullough practices at Birdseye Park in Stratford, Conn., on Dec. 30, 2020.

Connecticut student-athletes have gotten the OK to play again.

A board of control for the governing body of state public high school sports, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, approved a return to play that’ll allow students to practice January 19 with games beginning February 8.

“If the COVID environment creates a scenario that we feel is unsafe, we’ll shut it down,” said CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini.

While the news represents a win for teenagers who’ve been sidelined for two months, it may have implications the wider community. The CIAC decision comes down amid a huge surge in COVID-19 cases statewide. On Tuesday, Connecticut recorded its highest positivity rate of the second wave – 10.7 percent.

But CIAC officials are more focused on transmission rates among student-athletes. Lungarini said Thursday that in sports in general, there hasn’t been much in the way of players from “Team A” infecting “Team B”.

So, for Lungarini, the key to pulling off a season is mitigating COVID-19 outside of competition.

“Because of our ability to, not only with compliance, but the structure of education-based athletics—where we don’t have multiple people carpooling to events, where we don’t have team parties, where we can really address those needs or concerns -- that the impact or the risk of transmission through education-based interscholastic athletics is relatively low,” Lungarini said.

The CIAC approval was recently greenlit by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Commissioner Deidre Gifford outlined her position on winter sports play during a pandemic in a letter to Lungarini and the CIAC.

“Although the sports pause is currently set to expire on January 19, 2021, DPH continues to recommend a cautious approach to any restart of athletic activities,” Gifford wrote.

Even though the CIAC is moving forward with a winter return to play, many teenagers still won’t get to participate.

But high-risk sports like wrestling, competitive cheer, and competitive dance won’t happen – save for some non-contact skill-building that can be done at a distance.

“The priority of the board has been to maintain a spring season as much as we can without interruption because of those kids losing that entire experience last year,” Lungarini said.

Since the CIAC officials want to preserve spring sports, they’ve decided to cancel an “alternate season” slated for the end of March. It could’ve been a time for the CIAC to hold competition for the high-risk sports that were previously postponed, like wrestling, competitive cheer, competitive dance, and tackle football.

“27 percent of our spring athletes play football and/or wrestling, so you would have multiple conflicts with athletes [and] It would be a limiting factor, particularly for smaller schools, to try to play anything in that season,” Lungarini said.

Ice hockey, basketball, boys swimming, and gymnastics represent the approved winter sports. Those student-athletes will have a 12-date season. Indoor track athletes can practice but not compete until at least March.

The CIAC is blocking off two weeks in March for schools to schedule some sort of tournament experience.

Gifford punctuated the need for a cautious approach in her letter by sharing concerns over the high rate of local COVID-19 transmission in recent months, holiday gatherings leading to an uptick in community spread, and fear of the unknown brought on by the appearance of a virus mutation in Connecticut.

To mitigate the spread of coronavirus, basketball and ice hockey players are to wear masks at all times – while gymnastics, indoor track, and swim athletes would use them outside of their turn at play.

Should school districts feel the rate of coronavirus infection in their area is too high, they have the right to opt out.

If you read any of Frankie Graziano’s previous biographies, they’d be all about his passion for sports. But times change – and he’s a family man now.

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