MCPS student-athletes adjusting to the COVID world, systemwide county athletic director discusses what upcoming season will look like

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (WDVM) – Less than a week into their return to in person athletics, student athletes in the Montgomery County Public Schools system are adjusting to the new normal. 

When they arrive at practices, student athletes must check in by scanning a QR code on their phone and filling out a form that confirms they are symptom free and following safety protocols. They wear their masks at all times, with a few small and safe exceptions. They also must remain socially distant, in pods of 25 people outside and 10 inside.

The new normal is an adjustment for coaches, athletic directors, administrators, parents and others as well.

“Our student athletes are amazing. Our coaches have been all in. The athletics specialists, our ADs at the high schools have been awesome,” Montgomery County Director of Systemwide Athletics Jeff Sullivan said. “And then we have the security teams, the administrators and our athletic trainers. Just a collective network around our students and it’s been a great return so far.”

MCPS athletics returned students to in-person athletics for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with the start of the 2020-2021 Fall sports season on Saturday, February 27. The return was part of the Maryland second semester plan and a more specified MCPS based Return to R.A.I.S.E. plan.

Sullivan tells WDVM that he and others from the county athletics office have visited practices throughout the county and that things are moving extremely smoothly less than a week into the return. 

Sullivan says one of his top priorities is working towards the goal of games being played this month. Under the R.A.I.S.E. plan, games would start for football on March 26 (because of additional conditioning requirements and acclimation to playing again) and all other Fall sports on March 19. 

The Spring season is scheduled to begin in April. The winter season is not going to be played fully, but Sullivan says the county is hoping to provide opportunities for students, specifically seniors, in basketball, wrestling and swimming and diving. Though Sullivan did describe basketball and wrestling as “high risk sports,” due to the fact that there is a lot of contact indoors.

“Really our focus is on getting our student athletes back and providing these games,” Sullivan said. “I mean that is right now our number one focus and doing it safely. We want to make sure that we’re complying with everything that we need to comply with. And that is our focus – the re engagement and providing them with the best opportunity that we can in this COVID world.”

Sullivan tells WDVM that local health officials and metrics, along with county gathering limits, will dictate whether games can be played. Currently, MCPS athletics’ pod limits correspond to those gathering limits – 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors. Sullivan says those numbers will likely need to rise for games to take place.

“We’re going to be working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services and Office of Emergency Management Homeland Security through our medical side, as well as MCPS leadership to guide those decisions,” Sullivan said. “Our hope is that the metrics will continue to go down and that it’s hard to predict two or three days from now, much less two or three weeks, but it’s our goal to be in a position to conduct games.” 

Sullivan says he is currently focused on sorting out logistics, so if games are allowed to be played, they will be ready to be played on March 19. Sullivan also adds that protecting the health and safety of the student athletes and their families is still his top priority. 

Masks will be required to be worn by all players

At WDVM, we know that our viewers have many questions about what the upcoming season will be like, so we asked Jeff Sullivan about some of those other topics.

Are there exceptions for when masks don’t have to be worn by student athletes?

Sullivan tells WDVM that two sports will have an exception during competition: golf, only when student athletes are isolated on the course, and cheerleading, when stunting is being performed. Student athletes are also allowed to step away from their pods and take their mask off to cool off and take a drink of water during practice. Sullivan says cool off periods will be included during games. 

Will spectators be allowed at games?

Sullivan says the county has not been planning to allow spectators at games and does not expect them to be allowed in this academic year. 

Are there protocols for if there is a positive case? What are they?

Sullivan says that if there is a positive case, health officials will be notified immediately and as early as possible in the process. He says the pods and QR code forms will play a huge role in being prepared for any potential outbreak. 

“We can tell you at any time across all 25 high schools in every sport, who is in each of those pods, who was there that given day and if there is a concern that’s raised,” Sullivan said. “We immediately contact the health and human services and our school nurse and we work through that contact tracing process.”

He said medical experts will “drive our operations,” and outbreaks could result in individuals having to sit out and quarantine or entire pods. 

Will cheerleaders be allowed at contests? 

Sullivan says this will be influenced by county gathering limits, but he is hoping that cheerleaders will be able to be at outdoor contests. He says there will not be cheerleaders at indoor events. 

Will the teams be competing for a championship or the playoffs?

Sullivan tells WDVM that there will be competition, but just in the form of regular season games. There will not be a postseason or any form of a championship. 

“Students are going to be in uniforms, we’re going to play and it’s going to be competitive and we want that experience of interscholastic athletics,” Sullivan said. “But the focus right now is not on championships, it’s really on reengaging in the participation piece.”

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