Latest NJ Department of Health recommendations likely won’t shut down high school sports this winter

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It’s one line in a two-page document released on New Year’s Eve by the state Department of Health.

The document is an update for K-12 schools, regarding isolation and quarantine “timeframes and recommendations for very high COVID-19 activity levels.”

After highlighting the key points about the current surge of COVID cases, and CDC guidance, it adds a number of its own recommendations, reinforcing older ones, and introducing two new ones.

The third item – highlighted in bold, because it’s new – suggests that K-12 schools with high COVID activity “limit participation in extracurricular activities to those students and staff with up-to-date COVID-19 vaccination.”

Currently, COVID activity in New Jersey is at “very high” levels in all 21 counties.

If followed, it would essentially kick anyone who is unvaccinated off a basketball, bowling, diving, fencing, ice hockey, skiing, swimming, track and field, or wrestling team this winter.

And while that seemingly could potentially shut down a whole lot of teams, it’s not likely.

Central Jersey Sports Radio reached out to a handful of boys’ and girls’ basketball coaches Thursday to see what their teams’ vaccination status was. It’s a mixed bag. Some are mostly vaccinated, some half or a little bit less.

But by and large, in the midst of those conversations, the overwhelming concern on the minds of coaches and athletic directors alike appears to be more along the lines of: “How do we make this normal for the kids? And how do we reschedule these games we missed?”

Of the 20 girls and boys basketball teams in Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Bellamy & Son Paving Top Ten rankings that came out on Monday, eleven had been shutdown over the Christmas break.

“Nobody knows what to schedule or not and nobody wants to get popped for playing too many games,” said one coach. The NJSIAA allows schools to play a maximum three games per week, and not on three consecutive days, with one four-game week permitted.

Last year, in a shortened season, that rule was relaxed to allow two four-game weeks after the double whammy of COVID and frequent snowfall cancelled games left and right. And, of course, there’s only been one major snowfall this season, and it’s only the first week of January.

The NJSIAA has not announced any similar relaxation or other ways to mitigate what could be another one-two punch, and it’s not known if any plans to that end are in the works.

But there’s one thing the NJSIAA is not doing: mandating athletic departments to follow the recommendations from the Department of Health. And, of course, they are only recommendations.

NJSIAA Spokesman Mike Cherenson provided Central Jersey Sports Radio with a brief communication the association sent to its member schools the day the DOH released the new recommendations. It alerted schools to the recommendation, as well as a second new one that suggested “COVID-19 screening testing of students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, twice weekly for participation in all extracurricular activities.”

It’s unclear how many districts are doing just that, especially with a tests in high demand since before the holidays.

But the NJSIAA went on to say in its communication to member schools that the final decisions are up to each district. That’s been its line of thinking going back to last year, when a few districts opted out of fall sports, most notably Carteret and Piscataway in our coverage area.

It goes on to say: “Please note that these new recommendations from the State do not change NJSIAA policy with regard to participation in interscholastic sports:¬†participation continues to be a local decision, to be made by schools in consultation with their local health officials. Neither the Governor nor state health officials have asked the NJSIAA to change this policy.”

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