North Dakota high schools now have a blueprint for “opening up” fall sports competition amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

The North Dakota High School Activities Association Board of Directors approved “return to competition guidelines” Friday, July 24, via video conference for the upcoming fall sports season. The board unanimously passed the six pages of guidelines. There are also 12 pages of sports specific guidelines attached to the main document.

“It’s a blueprint for member schools and there are several requirements in there and as everything evolves we may see, as time goes on, that more and more recommendations become requirements,” said NDHSAA executive director Matt Fetsch. “That wouldn’t shock me at all.”

Last week, the board voted unanimously to proceed with the fall season as planned, one of the few states to do so at the time. Individual school districts will decide if they want to compete. School districts also have the leeway to develop their own specific competition guidelines based on the NDHSAA recommendations and in conjunction with state and local health officials.

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“I think the reaction to our decision has really kind of lived on the extremes,” said Mark Rerick, athletic director of Grand Forks public schools. “It’s been extreme excitement that we’re hosting sports or it’s been extreme disappointment that we’re making kids play sports. I’ve tried to temper folks and bring them back to the middle. Really neither one of those is true. We’re certainly not making kids play sports. Schools always have that decision. Nor are we guaranteeing that anything will get played.”

Fetsch said the current guidelines will likely change in the upcoming weeks due to the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape.

“It will change,” Fetsch said. “The No. 1 reason for getting it out is to serve member schools. … I think giving them an idea, in some cases, maybe where to start if they haven’t yet. Where others have had policies in place throughout the summer.”

Fetsch said at this point fans will be allowed at events in accordance with state and local health guidelines. The amount of spectators is likely to vary greatly depending on geography or the type of event.

“My anticipation is the No. 1 question is can we have fans,” Fetsch said. “As right now, yeah there is, and again there may be local restrictions, but hopefully there is that opportunity there throughout the year, but again there are processes in place if that has to change.

“They (districts) will follow the state restart guidelines and again that potentially could vary greatly from one area of the state to the other and the type of event, indoor, outdoor, etc.”

Cross country, golf, football, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis and volleyball are the NDHSAA-sponsored fall sports. One consistent theme throughout the guidelines is limiting extra physical contact and keeping social distance between competitors when possible.

For example, pregame and postgame handshakes have been ruled out. In football, team boxes may be extended on both sidelines to the 10-yard lines for players only in order for more social distancing.

“When there ultimately is a positive case within a team, I think limiting those close contacts as much as possible will go a long way in determining whether a team can continue to play for the next few weeks,” Fetsch said.

Masks or face coverings are recommended for participants and any other game-related personnel when they are not involved with strenuous activity.

The board of directors may also alter traditional tournament formats and sites due to COVID-19.

“It will be a year unlike any other and those contingency type plans aren’t necessarily anything new,” Fetsch said. “It will be more preparation on the front side, but not necessarily a whole lot different as far as the audibles that can get thrown out there due to circumstances.”

West Fargo's Nuradin Musa (10) collides with West Fargo Sheyenne's Abraham Kollie as Dylan Sipe follows the play on the new turf on the Mustangs field Thursday, Aug. 22. The teams battled to a 0-0 draw.  David Samson / The Pioneer
West Fargo's Nuradin Musa (10) collides with West Fargo Sheyenne's Abraham Kollie as Dylan Sipe follows the play on the new turf on the Mustangs field Thursday, Aug. 22. The teams battled to a 0-0 draw. David Samson / The Pioneer