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MDHHS antigen testing pilot program will allow MHSAA to restart fall postseasons and conclude by end of extended ‘pause’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, December 18, 2020, 1:55 pm

This is what they speak of when they talk of a plan coming together. 

With the vaccines heading to the most at-risk populace, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suddenly had a surplus of COVID-19 rapid tests, and the need to find some way to transition those resources toward keeping schools open when they resume in-person education in the new calendar year.

And the Michigan High School Athletic Association has been sitting with its hand raised — sometimes patiently, sometimes like the Arnold Horshack character from “Welcome Back, Kotter” — trying to get the decision-makers across town to give them a chance to prove that high school sports can be carried off safely. 

Opportunity, meet need. 

When the MDHHS approached the MHSAA Friday morning with the idea of using the resumption of the association’s three fall sports postseasons — volleyball, girls swimming and football — as a pilot program, a test case for rolling out rapid testing in schools, it seemed like a no-brainer. 

So while most organized sports are still on ‘pause’ — which the MDHHS and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended another 25 days, until Jan. 15, in Friday’s newest order — the MHSAA’s three fall postseasons will be able to resume practice almost immediately, and play as soon as the start of the new year. 

“Health and Human Services wanted to partner with an entity that would have a limited number of schools, limited number of student athletes, and certainly with the number of fall sports that were left, this seemed to make an awful lot of sense,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in a news conference following the announcement of the extension by Gov. Whitmer and MDHHS director Robert Gordon. “That concept all came from the Department of Health and Human Services. I know the press conference, I think about a week ago, we heard both Gov. Whitmer and Director Gordon both clearly state that their priority was getting schools open for in-person learning first. As things have developed over the last week or so, in order for schools to stay open safely, they believe that rapid testing will be one of the tools that will help schools in the new year. The small group of fall sports that we had been continuing to advocate for, they felt this was the perfect sample size. We’re only talking about 4,000 total athletes, and so we’ll really be able to help Health and Human Services here by getting some very valuable data with the rapid testing that will be going on here over the next four weeks.”

Practices for all three of the remaining fall sports — volleyball, girls swimming and football — will restart on Monday, Jan. 21, and the postseasons will be completed right about the time the remainder of the state comes out of the latest extension of the pause on Jan. 15. 

The pilot program is designed, through antigen testing, to collect data on the spread of COVID-19 in athletics, and will help the MDHHS roll out expanded rapid testing in schools after the turn of the calendar year. 

“With respect to sports, outdoor, non-contact sports are opening. We will also be offering a new pilot program for fall sports, including contact sports that use antigen tests in order to ensure safety, as students complete high school fall championships. This is a very limited number of schools that had seasons interrupted,” Gordon said at the news conference. “And this will be a chance to do two things: It will let students complete a season that is, of course, very important to them. And it will allow schools and the state of Michigan to work together to learn how we can use antigen tests to encourage safe reopening in January.”

Football playoffs will resume on Jan. 2 with 11-player regionals and 8-player semifinals, and the postseasons will culminate with 8-player finals on Jan. 9, and the 11-player finals on Jan. 15-16. The semifinals will be played at home sites for both divisions, with the finals sites to be announced soon by the MHSAA.

Volleyball will restart its postseason with quarterfinals on Jan. 5, followed by the semifinals and finals at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena on Jan. 7-9.

Girls swimming and diving will hold its three Lower Peninsula finals finals on Jan. 15-16 at three separate sites. 

No spectators will be allowed at fall tournament events, and all other safety protocols remain in place.

It was the offer of the pilot program that kept the fall sports from remaining on hold, as well. 

The idea of testing was not new — but the idea of the MHSAA and its members being able to do it for free was what tipped the scales. The MDHHS will be providing the rapid tests free of charge for member schools. 

“The testing question came up to us — and I’d reached out to some college folks I knew in the state. And I’m not just talking Michigan, Michigan State, to be honest. A lot of my conversations were with some of our Division III schools, one of which did play football this fall. Had a long conversation about what testing requirements were like, and really where we were at during October and November, you looked at the cost and the mechanics of testing. At that time, nobody was making rapid testing available, certainly at a price point that could be handled. The game-changer was with today’s plan from Health and Human Services about rapid testing that they would be providing. The game-changer in this whole testing did come from the leadership at Health and Human Services, and we’re grateful for that opportunity and suggestion for them,” Uyl said, noting that a lot of the surplus came from texting no longer needed at nursing homes.

“A lot of the information and data we’re going to be able to collect as part of the pilot program, over the next four weeks is really going to be able to help schools open in January, and hopefully stay open. … The answer we were told was that rapid testing was more readily available because of the reallocation of those resources, and the one example that was given to us was nursing homes. Nursing homes are actively vaccinating individuals now, which frees up some of that rapid testing, and I think HHS was looking for how we could take rapid testing and apply it to the educational world of schools, when it comes to January. The timing of all of this really ended up with our fall sports being the test-case group, or the pilot group.”

Winter sports remain on pause until Jan. 16, with the exception of skiing — the lone outdoor, non-contact winter sport that fell outside the restrictions — which can begin practice on Monday, Dec. 21.

Uyl said they’ll look more at how the ongoing delay for winter sports will impact scheduling for the rest of the school year. Gov. Whitmer said that the restrictions might not last until Jan. 15, if the current improvements in the COVID-19 numbers continue into the new year. 

“We’ve gotta take a few days here … we need to take some time here and really go through that and see how that’s going to impact our winter sports. We’ve identified the first date that we can practice, which right now is Jan. 16 — if that becomes earlier, we will certainly do that. What we need to do is look our tournament calendar. We want to try and end as many sports in late March as possible, to try and give our winter teams as many weeks of a regular season as we possibly can. Also looking at the number of games that might be allowed in a week — do we do anything creative with that? Would we even ever look at maybe a basketball team or a hockey team to play more than one game in a day, on possibly a Saturday or Sunday?” Uyl said, noting that there will probably be a narrower-than-usual window between the restart of practices and competitions. “I think that’s going to be a short window. We are going to depend on local schools to use some good judgement and common sense when they build their schedules, in terms of practice to competition. Trying to thread the needle between giving kids as many opportunities to play as possible, but doing it as safely as we can.”

Choosing to delay the winter sports until the spring — when vaccine might be more readily available — wasn’t really an option for Uyl, who admitted that weather does play a factor in the resumption of football — the lone outdoor sport among the three remaining fall postseasons. 

“I’ve already heard from one our host sites that they’re already reaching out to one of our indoor facilities in our state, to see if that would be a possibility. For schools in Northern Lower Michigan, there are now (several) different synthetic turf options, as you work your way from west to east. … There are more options than ever before in terms of a snowplow on a synthetic surface, and making sure that the field is not just playable, but making sure that it’s a safe playing surface to be on. We’ll work with our schools that will be hosting here over the next few weeks, and they do have options available to them, if they want to take the game from their facility to a place that would just be a better fit, or a better circumstance,” Uyl said, mentioning Traverse City, Gaylord, Alpena and Petoskey as options. 

“Truth be told, delaying let’s say football to try to finish in March, especially in the Upper Peninsula, they would tell us that the weather is better over the next four weeks, than it would be come later in the spring. I do know that finishing our fall sports in the rapid testing plan, our Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is confident that this is a plan that can be safe, it’s a plan that will get kids to be able to play again. And to be honest, moving the fall sports into the spring then creates other issues for winter and spring sports, and we really felt our window of opportunity to finish fall was now, and our state health department agreed.”

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RELATED READING:

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