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This COVID-19 safety plan by Delaware's HS football coaches was key to return of fall sports

Brad Myers
Delaware News Journal

Dr. Karyl Rattay wanted to find ways for all youth sports to be played safely during the coronavirus pandemic – but there was a sticking point with the most popular high school spectator sport.

“I just couldn’t picture how contact sports like football could go forward without some type of face covering,” said Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health.

Then Rattay reviewed the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association’s 27-page document of COVID-19 safety recommendations and saw something that changed her mind.

“Seeing a picture of a football player with a gaiter on over his mask made me see how there were possibilities for face coverings that would be tolerable,” Rattay said.

An example of a gaiter face covering that can be worn over a football helmet to enhance the safety of playing football during the coronavirus pandemic.

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So on Sept. 1, Rattay appeared at a press conference alongside Gov. John Carney to discuss the state’s updated guidance for youth sports. It allowed high-contact sports such as football and wrestling to be played if the new guidance is followed.

That paved the way for the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association Board of Directors to vote 14-2 on Sept. 10 to reverse course from its August meeting and approve fall high school sports.

St. Georges football coach John Wilson said this helmet, fitted with a layered cloth covering over the facemask, is one of the options that could be considered to allow high school football to be played in Delaware this fall.

DIAA’s new action still must be approved by the seven-member Delaware State Board of Education, which will meet at 5 p.m. Thursday.

While one important step remains, the football coaches' COVID-19 recommendations played a vital role in getting football approved and prompting the DIAA board to take a fresh look at allowing fall sports.

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“It is really a comprehensive approach,” Rattay said of the safety plan. “It certainly enabled me to see how football could go forward safely.”

Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches AssociationPresident John Wilson said the coaches began working in May to come up with ways to keep football safe during the pandemic, borrowing some ideas from other states and tailoring a plan specific to Delaware.

“We looked at everything before, during and after the game,” said Wilson, head football coach at St. Georges Technical High School.

St.Georges football coach John Wilson, shown here with Terrance Trapp (left) and Anthony Mason (right) at last year's Delaware Online High School Football Media Day at Dover High School, has been working with other coaches since May to come up with a plan to play football safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

If approved, highlights of the dozens of changes to Delaware high school football this fall would include:

  • All players, coaches, support personnel, officials and spectators must wear face coverings at all times, including when athletes are actively playing.
  • All players, coaches, support personnel, officials and spectators must complete a symptom assessment and temperature screening before entering the premises.
  • Increasing sideline space from 50 yards to 80 yards to promote social distancing.
  • Shortening the amount of full contact allowed during practices from 30 minutes to 15 minutes per day.
  • A two-minute break after every six minutes of clock time, to eliminate continuous contact for 15 minutes.
  • Shortening halftime from 20 minutes to 15 minutes, and avoiding use of locker rooms at halftime, if possible.
  • No touch rule – players should refrain from high fives, group celebrations and other physical contact with teammates, opposing players, coaches, officials and fans.
  • No postgame handshakes, but teams may line up 5 yards apart to exhibit sportsmanship.

Jamie Mack, environmental health director at DPH, said each school or school district must submit a plan that covers all sports for state approval. The football coaches’ recommendations should be helpful in that process.

“The coaches’ plan is a good template,” Mack said. “We’re looking now for the individual school districts to take that plan and adapt it so they can show us how they would implement all the requirements and recommendations in that plan.

Those plans would then be reviewed, Mack said, and they won't include just football.

“We want to review plans for all of the school sports that need them," he said, "so we can ensure everybody has a chance to play.”

If the State Board of Education approves, practices in all fall sports will begin Sept. 28. Competitions in cross country, boys soccer, field hockey and girls volleyball will begin Oct. 19. The first games of a seven-week football regular season will begin Oct. 23.

Delaware Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay (left), shown using hand sanitizer after a press conference with Gov. John Carney, said a photo of a football player wearing a gaiter over his helmet convinced her that football could be played safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That gives football a 25-day preseason, a week longer than normal.

Wilson stressed the importance of football coaches advancing in phases, allowing more time to make sure all players are in the proper condition before any contact drills can start.

“We understand there are going to be plenty of deconditioned athletes,” Wilson said. “There are going to be plenty of coaches who have not even had any contact with their players since March.”

The state allowed football and other sports to begin limited offseason conditioning workouts on July 6, and St. Georges has been one of the schools taking full advantage of the opportunity.

“I’ve had 16 sessions with my kids,” Wilson said. “I made it a point every Tuesday and Thursday to make sure we were doing something with them. And if you came out to our practices, the only difference is we’re not wearing pads.

“We’re out there, they’re wearing masks, they’re doing what they need to do. We’re following all of the guidelines and restrictions.”

[Story continues below DIFCA safety plan document] 

That includes symptom and temperature screenings before every session. Wilson did not know of any complete statewide data, but he said that among nine football teams that consistently tracked information during summer workouts, 4,500 screenings were conducted and zero COVID-19 cases were reported.

“The kids have really embraced this. They are getting better with the masks,” Wilson said. “Of course, they didn’t like it at first. But we had to really instill in them this is how it’s going to be done if we want to have football.

“We have something in place that is really working,” Wilson added. “I think if we continue to do that, and we all embrace this and work with our athletic directors and our trainers, it’s worth trying.”

Contact Brad Myers at bmyers@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ