New Jersey high school student athletes very well may get the chance to hit the fields this fall, but it could be a much shorter season than they’re used to.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) officially announced Friday a plan for the fall sports season to begin on Oct. 1 and last until Thanksgiving weekend on Nov. 27-28.

Athletes are still allowed to return to campus for the first time since March in the NJSIAA’s “summer recess” period which is set to begin Monday (July 13). The summer recess period is now extended through August 28. After that, there will be a two-week hiatus from August 29 through September 13 (only virtual meetings will be permitted). Official practices for fall sports will begin September 14 leading up to girls tennis opening September 28, football on October 2 and all other fall sports getting stated October 1.

“High school sports are school-based, so we need to first ensure all is in order with the opening of our schools,” says Colleen Maguire, NJSIAA chief operating officer in a press release. “After that, we can begin playing sports. To be clear, our goal is to return to play – while making sure that health, safety, emotional well-being, and academics come first. We have a different model than some other types of programs that are far smaller in scale and operate independently. We have a duty to ensure that New Jersey’s schools and their more than 1.5 million students and teachers, including 283,000 high school student-athletes, can first return to school and their academics, and then participate in extracurricular activities like sports.”

When it comes to high school football, the regular season has a six-game window and post-season play will be limited to just two weeks of play. Traditional Thanksgiving contests will still be able to be played past the November 22 end-date to the fall sports season.

The NJSIAA Sports Advisory Task Force has identified the following eight guiding principles that will drive the decision-making process. 

1.    Ensure the health and safety of all student-athletes.

2.    Re-engage all student-athletes as soon as possible for their social, emotional and mental well-being.

3.    Maximize participation across all sports and all student-athletes.

4.    Keep competition as local as possible for as long as possible.

5.    Develop multiple return to play models to minimize the risk of a cancelled season.

6.    Maintain the ability to pivot to back-up plans when deemed necessary.

7.    Minimize potential impact on the spring season.

8.    Minimize the importance of postseason, statewide championships.

In a memo to NJSIAA member schools, the NJSIAA Sports Advisory Task Force said: “This plan is the first model to be provided in what will be a series of return to play models that will be in place for the 2020-2021 school year. The goal of the task force is to identify multiple back-up models that will be available as both school-related and health-related circumstances evolve.”

The memo went on note: “This plan is intended to allow schools and leagues and conferences to start planning for a fall sports season.  We all recognize the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic and realize the circumstances are changing regularly. We will provide updates to all potential plans as timely as possible to ensure schools and leagues and conferences have time to adapt to any pivots to a different return to play model.”

New Jersey’s various scholastic leagues and conferences are strongly encouraged to revise schedules to emphasize local competition and minimize the number of different schools that come in contact with each other. Smaller divisions of schools for competition purposes is encouraged in order to facilitate communications and scheduling.

The NJSIAA will strive to open postseason participation to any team wishing to participate. As with the regular season, the postseason will remain local, meaning a sectional championship or less.  A seeding committee will be used by every sport in order to remove the reliance on power points, standings, and overall record.

“By reducing the length of the season, student-athletes will have the opportunity for participation – but will also have more time to focus on their academic requirements,” says NJSIAA President Steve Shohfi. “A reduced season will naturally lead to a reduced amount of competition, which minimizes the risk of infection through exposure to many different teams and schools.” 

Denis Nelson, a member of the NJSIAA COVID-19 Sports Advisory Task Force and the athletic director at River Dell Regional High School notes: “Removing the possibility for statewide, postseason competition is intended to convey the specific message that the fall season is specifically about opportunity, engagement, and participation. It is not about winning championships. From a health perspective, it’s appropriate to keep sports as local as possible. From a competition perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial but different impact on every school district. As a result, the playing field won’t be level this year, so it’s only fair not to crown statewide champions.”