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From left, Nina Priebe, Amylia Anger and Claire O’Connor battle for the ball during practice with the Keene High girls’ soccer team in 2019.

For those hoping a fall sports season commences at the high school level in 2020, Thursday offered good news as the NHIAA released its Return to Play documentation, stating that schools can begin practicing Sept. 8.

The NHIAA Executive Council unanimously pledged the recognition of fall sports, including football, with its decision.

“The NHIAA believes it is essential to the physical, emotional and mental well-being of students to return to physical activity and athletic competition safely,” the council’s Return to Play document stated.

While this is a step in toward playing, it is by no means an indicator that game competition will be permitted this fall. That will be determined school-by-school.

More information should be released shortly by the NHIAA, regarding games.

“Decisions on the first date to play contests will be forthcoming,” the NHIAA’s website stated.

In Cheshire County, with virus cases limited compared to some other counties in the state such as Hillsborough and Rockingham, the potential for schools in the area to participate in games may be broader.

While possible, it is still a fluid situation.

“There’s nothing concrete yet,” Keene Athletic Director Michael Atkins said. “As athletic directors, we were waiting for something from the NHIAA saying that we are moving forward, which we are. “So, we’ll start practices on Sept. 8 and go from there.”

The NHIAA broke down sports into three tiers: lower risk, moderate risk and higher risk.

The lower-risk sports are cross country (with staggered starts), track and field, swimming, bowling, golf, tennis, alpine skiing, Nordic skiing (with staggered starts) and sideline spirit.

The moderate-risk sports are volleyball, soccer, baseball, softball, ice hockey, field hockey, girls lacrosse, gymnastics and bass fishing.

Higher-risk sports include basketball, football, wrestling, spirit and boys lacrosse.

Keene High’s football, boys soccer, field hockey and volleyball teams have all already been doing conditioning drills.

“It’s really just conditioning, we’re following the state guidelines for social distancing, so kids are in line 6 feet apart,” Atkins said. “We’re just doing things to help our students get any sort of physical conditioning so they’re ready when things start up.”

The NHIAA return to play document lays out guidelines to be followed. These include facilities cleaning, entrance/exit strategies for teams, limitations on gatherings, pre-workout screenings, face coverings, hygiene practices, hydration/food, travel, locker room and athletic training areas, weight rooms, physical activity, and athletic equipment and tennis courts.

With an in-depth list to be following and just one athletic director at each school, it brings into question how effectively these rules will be implemented. In summer baseball leagues now being played, social distancing at times has not been followed in those games and masks have been a rarity in the stands.

“As the athletic director, we’ve already started talking about different scenarios in terms of the traveling ... teams won’t use lockers, they’ll come ready to play; for some sports they’ve extended the bench area. For football it will be the 10-yard line to the 10-yard line, if we have football,” Atkins said. “So, kids can social distance on the sidelines. There is going to be limitations on spectators and fans. We don’t know what everything is going to look like yet, but there’s options being thrown around.”

There had been discussions about possibly moving fall sports such as football to the spring.

“Right now, it seems like that’s not being discussed,” Atkins said. “Fall sports are going to be in the fall and each school can decide what sports they’ll offer. But things are changing almost by the hour, it seems.”

“We recognize that returning to interscholastic competition this fall will be individual school decisions,” the NHIAA’s release read. “We hope, however, that the guidelines provided by the state of New Hampshire, the NHIAA, and the actions taken thus far by the NHIAA Council will help schools and districts make informed decisions about what is best for their student-athletes this coming fall.”