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Student athletes take first step back toward team sports at public high schools

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                                Kalani High School is starting team practices with spring sports that are low- to moderate-risk, including softball, baseball, boys volleyball, track, tennis and golf. Curtis Meares is shown representing the school in the OIA golf championships at Turtle Bay in 2019, which he went on to win.

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    Kalani High School is starting team practices with spring sports that are low- to moderate-risk, including softball, baseball, boys volleyball, track, tennis and golf. Curtis Meares is shown representing the school in the OIA golf championships at Turtle Bay in 2019, which he went on to win.

Starting this week, Hawaii’s public high schools can bring student athletes back to campus for conditioning and team practices for the first time since switching to distance learning nearly a year ago.

The shift applies only to athletic workouts and practices — not competitions — and only to schools that are in blended learning mode, where students are on campus for classes on rotating days. It will be up to individual schools to decide when to resume the workouts, but some got rolling right away Monday.

“This is the first step in our gradual approach to restarting high school athletics in Hawaii,” Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said. “It is essential to the physical and mental well-being of students that they be able to return to athletic activities.”

Student athletes must be screened, wear masks, use only their own water bottles and follow social distancing protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Gatherings must meet government orders, and facilities and equipment must be cleaned regularly.

Kalani High School, which had been planning in advance, welcomed back its first student athletes Monday in accordance with the new guidance from the Department of Education. An initial cohort of about 60 student athletes who had met requirements, including a physical, were invited to meet with their athletic trainers that afternoon to start conditioning.

“We created a model that we are going to follow that is based on the fact that our kids, our student athletes, are probably deconditioned or out of shape since they have not participated in athletics for over a year,” athletic director Gregory Van Cantfort said in an interview. “We need to have an opportunity to assess their readiness to participate at a competitive level.”

“We are really excited, and I know the kids and the parents have been frantically getting their paperwork in and so forth,” he said.

All Kalani students, except for about 220 who opted for full distance learning, have been back on campus for classes on a blended rotation since Jan. 25, according to Principal Mitchell Otani. That means roughly 550 students attend school in person each day.

The student athletes will follow the same alphabetical grouping as the academic calendar and also be grouped into four athletic cohorts, each phasing in gradually to conditioning and practices.

“The idea is to preserve our bubble,” Otani said. ‘We’ve been very good about making sure that our kids are safe here. We don’t want to throw caution to the wind. We are very structured in what we want to do.”

Under the state’s new Guidance for Restarting Athletics, team practices for “low and moderate risk sports,” with some modifications, are now allowed on all islands except Maui. That’s because those islands meet the Phase 3 threshold for the Department of Health’s Learning Model Parameters for athletic activity at public schools: a seven-day daily average of 2.1 to 5 cases per 100,000 population and a positivity rate of less than 2.49%. Maui’s case counts are higher.

Kalani High is starting with the spring sports that are low- to moderate-risk, including softball, baseball, boys volleyball, track, tennis and golf.

“We decided that we were going to focus on spring sports only to start with because those were the sports that missed out on their seasons last year,” Van Cantfort said. “We wanted to give them the extra focus at this point. For our winter and fall sports, we will do the same cohort process starting in May.”

Each cohort of athletes will go through a phased, four-week process. The first week, students will spend 30 minutes daily with athletic trainers doing conditioning that allows the trainers to assess their readiness, he said.

The second week, practice time will extend to an hour, split between the trainer and the coach. The third and fourth weeks, student athletes will be with their coaches for an hour and a half of practice, and intensity will gradually ramp up.

“The coaches have to take a little different approach to their philosophy this year,” Van Cantfort said. “Right now there is no real competitive plan. I emphasize it’s more about the socialization and the sense of belonging — I get to be with my friends, be with my coach again.”

“The belonging and bonding, I think, is what they’re going to need at this point,” he said. “As far as competition goes, that’s further down the road. We’re focusing on the person right now.”

Each high school that is in either the blended or in-person instructional model has discretion to resume conditioning and practices as befits its campus, students and staff, according to the Department of Education.

Mililani High School, which has been largely in distance learning, anticipates starting blended learning after spring break, beginning with its seniors. That could allow it to bring back student athletes for conditioning before long.

“I didn’t get anything concrete yet,” Mililani baseball coach Mark Hirayama said Monday. “It’s possible conditioning may start on March 29. Our students are supposed to start getting back into the classrooms after spring break.”

Spring break runs Monday to March 19 for Hawaii’s public schools.

Any resumption of sports competitions will be up to the interscholastic leagues.

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Star-Advertiser staff writer Paul Honda contributed to this report.

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