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CIAC allowing coaches to provide virtual instruction during pandemic

This was the week when high school conference tournament champions across the state were going to be crowned.

Next week was supposed to be the start of the CIAC state tournament.

Both are among the numerous things that were scheduled to happen but were instead wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It bothers me to this day that kids did not have that closure to their winter season," CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said. "And it bothers me today that our spring kids had no experience and really haven't had any closure. Not only have they not had a sports season, they haven't had proms. They haven't had senior trips."

The CIAC has lifted its restrictions during the pandemic on off-season coaching. Spring coaches have been allowed to work virtually with their players on skills while fall and winter coaches have been limited to virtual conditioning. All coaches will be allowed to share game films, playbooks and "skill-specific" instruction as of Monday, June 1.

"This is related specifically to the conditions in which our students lost an entire spring season with their coaches," Lungarini said, "and also understanding the need that our student-athletes have to stay connected to their schools and their communities and manage the social and emotional stress that they're experiencing at this time.

"We believe the relationship between coaches and student-athletes is one of the strongest relationships that is forged in the high school experience. So while students are coping with isolation and not being able to be on campus for curriculum instruction and the lack of sport opportunities, we feel it's important to give them that relationship and connection to their peers and their coaches through athletics."

Under ordinary circumstances, coaches could supervise their players' conditioning but couldn't do more than that. There have been coaches who dislike the rule, noting that students may receive instruction at any time from school staff in teaching and the arts.

The Southern Connecticut Conference formerly asked the CIAC last summer to create a subcommittee to explore season limitation rules.

"It's a topic that we have engaged in discussions on throughout the course of this year," Lungarini said. "We heard the requests of the SCC. We have been gathering the pros and cons of our current out-of-season coaching regulations, and that information will be provided back to the SCC. We're hoping to complete those meetings and discussions over the summer after our principals have had an opportunity to manage the end of this year and graduation. We hope to continue those conversations this summer and provide feedback to the SCC as requested at the beginning of next year."

"This (current allowance) is out-of-the-box thinking and it's really what's in the best interest of our kids in the face of a health pandemic. Certainly we'll reflect on the decision that we made, the opportunities that we provide not only within the context of how we help our students and our membership throughout this crisis, but what does that new normal look like once we're able to return to on-campus activities."

The CIAC canceled the winter season on March 10 during the boys' and girls' basketball and hockey tournaments (the boys' swimming state championship meets were to start on March 11). Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order on March 15 to close all schools after the following day.

The CIAC officially canceled its spring tournaments on April 23.

Lungarini takes part in weekly phone calls and shares information with the executive directors from Section I of the National Federation of State High School Associations (the section covers the Tri-State area as well as all of New England). There have been monthly conversations with the entire national organization, too.

The fall season is scheduled to start on Aug. 17 with football conditioning, but little is certain given the ever-changing nature of the pandemic and response.

"We're currently working with a number of stakeholder groups to develop the CAS-CIAC guidelines for a return to athletics," Lungarini said. "We hope to have that completed in the next couple of weeks. We are consistently engaged in discussions. ... We're considering everything from what would a normal start on Aug. 17 looks like, to what would a shortened season with a later start would look like, to what would a shortened season with an earlier end date look like if there's growing concern of the flu season creating further issues. Colleges and universities, the majority of them at this point, have stated that students would not return to campus after Thanksgiving.

"This is all information we'll consider. We don't want to rush it. We understand that people need to plan for sports and activities but the information we have today around this can be very different from the information that we have a month from now or a month-and-a-half from now.

"I think that we're going to have fall athletics. I'm just not certain which sports, or what exactly it will look like at this point. We're not sure if it would begin with any fans in attendance. (We're) not sure if we'd be looking at adjusting and playing lower-risk or moderate-sports first. These are all considerations that we'll be talking about over the next couple of months to determine what's the best experience that we can provide kids, but I am confident that we'll have some sports experience, and more confident that as the year goes on that we'll be able to get back to play."

n.griffen@theday.com

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