The parameters of New Mexico’s already-condensed five-game high school football season has taken an unexpected turn.
The Journal on Wednesday obtained a copy of the state’s Public Education Department guidelines for the New Mexico Activities Association’s return to high school sports.
Contained in this document is wording that had some coaches, especially football coaches, distressed. A FAQ section asks this: “Can schools participate in practices before going into hybrid?”
The answer: “Schools may conduct workouts in pods of five prior to going into hybrid. Schools may not begin full team practices until transitioning into hybrid and completing the 14-day observation period.”
It was the last few words — “completing the 14-day observation period” — that were of particular significance. Coaches the Journal spoke to Wednesday said they believed they’d be able to begin full practices once a hybrid learning model begins, rather than having to stay in pods for two additional weeks.
“That’s what we were told, to be completely honest,” St. Pius football coach Dave Montoya said.
Said Cleveland football coach Heath Ridenour, “That’s the way everyone went about it.”
This language even caught the NMAA off guard.
“The wording was different than what was communicated in prior conversations,” executive director Sally Marquez said. “But we will abide by the governor’s orders and make it work.”
Trying to squeeze in five games (the most allowed by the NMAA for this spring) is going to be quite problematic for programs whose schools haven’t yet begun their hybrid learning, Montoya said.
“I think five games is out the window at this point,” he said. “When I first heard, I was really disgusted, and just angry.”
A frustrated Ridenour said he felt the line had been moved by the state, a sentiment shared by many of his equally exasperated peers. “The state is making it impossible for us to do this,” he said. “They don’t want us to play.”
There is one additional component to consider.
NMAA guidelines mandate that teams must have eight days of official practice before they can play their first game. Four of those days are designated as an acclimation period — two days in helmets, then two more in helmets and shoulder pads. And then four days in full pads.
The PED earlier this month OK’d teams to begin getting into helmets and shoulder pads only, even though football is still technically in its offseason. Those schools who have been in helmets and shoulder pads would only have to fulfill the requirement of four days in full pads before playing its season opener.
“It could move us potentially down to four games,” Marquez said. “But we can also be creative.”
Schools or districts that started their hybrid model the week of Feb. 8, or this week, won’t be hamstrung as much as those who don’t get into hybrid until next week or later. The Albuquerque Public Schools board was meeting late Wednesday to discuss its re-entry plans.
From a COVID-19 perspective, once a school gets into hybrid, it faces a 14-day waiting period as the state monitors.
“If the school does not experience four or more rapid responses in the 14-day waiting period, it may commence participation in NMAA activities,” according to the PED guidelines.
Other PED guideline items of note:
- As expected, no fans will be allowed at any high school sporting events;
- Also as expected, masks will be mandatory for students and adults, even for athletes in competition;
- A percentage of coaches and staff (roughly 25%) will randomly be tested for COVID-19 through the state’s surveillance testing program; the document makes no specific reference to testing athletes. Albuquerque Academy is one school that plans to test athletes.
The guidelines also outline the protocols to follow if a team has a positive COVID test. “One or more positive tests among players or coaches will result in a 14-day suspension of practices and competition,” it says.
Ridenour said, somewhat ominously, “We’re gonna wait over the next (couple) days and find out if our learning model will get approved by the state or not. By Friday, we’ll know whether we’re starting spring football or (getting ready) to start our offseason.”