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USA Football Plans Return to Play for Youths in 2020

USA Football has developed a phased approach for the return of youth football this year.

The plan is based on phased reopening guidelines from the CDC. The governing body for the sport in this country advises youth leagues to consult their city or county health departments to determine which CDC phase their community is in. That step begins a youth program's local reopening procedure during the coronavirus pandemic.

From there, those youth leagues are advised to consult with local school systems to share information and resources. 

Naturally, the leagues should be screening for virus symptoms and signs prior to any activities; practice 6-foot physical distancing in the first two phases of USA Football's plan before adjusting to a separation of 3 to 6 feet in Phase 3; follow sanitizing and cleaning steps; require separate, clearly labeled footballs, drink bottles, towels and other personal items; and have non-players wear face coverings. 

Face coverings are advised for all coaches and optional for players.

"During this very uncertain time, it's important that parents know that USA Football has a detailed plan for getting their children back to the activities they enjoy," said Dr. Michael Koester, chair of the National Federation of State High School Associations' Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. "This document provides expert guidance in safely returning young athletes to football in a thoughtful and deliberate manner."

The first phase concentrates on football workouts and drills, limiting practices to 10 or fewer people (including coaches) who must stay within their groups and at least 6 feet apart. No equipment is shared. USA Football's guidelines offer examples to help youth programs within each phase.

In the second phase, practices can include up to 10 people inside or 50 people outdoors, again within the same group of five to 10 teammates in station-based activities. Individual drills conducted either unopposed without contact or against bags or soft surfaces are suggested, with coaches remaining at a minimum of 6 feet from players. All bags and sleds must be sanitized between each use.

Passing, kicking, punting and shotgun snaps will be allowed, but no hand-offs or snaps under center in deference to physical distancing.

The third phase includes modified flag football and 7-on-7 games, and modified tackle practices, with up to 50 people in small groups. Player contact, including blocking, may be introduced with partners or within small groups, along with games and activities involving a limited number of players. 

All such activities are consistent with its Football Development Model for progressive play. 

USA Football has worked with the CDC and other medical experts, including those with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the National Federation of State High School Associations, in developing the phases introduced Monday. 

"We have spent a lot of time talking to governing bodies and, for the most part, they are taking this conservative kind of approach," says Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football's executive director. 

"We've recognized the need to have direct conversations, 'town halls' as we call them, with a diverse set of constituents. Commissioners from leagues from different socioeconomic levels, and basically a surveying of coaches, administrators and parents to help shape phases 1, 2, 3 and beyond.

"We took the approach that there are a lot of variables and this is an incredibly fluid situation. How do we make sure we can consolidate the information and make this flow of information as digestible and simple to understand? And how to take that critical information and turn it into user-friendly resources. It's been a multi-pronged effort."

That effort also has included subject matter experts from the USOPC, the NCAA, Pop Warner Little Scholars, and the universities of Minnesota and North Carolina.

In its fourth and final phase, USA Football says that based on USOPC guidance, returns to regular practices and games — once an area has no restrictions on the size of group gatherings and local public health authorities allow public facilities to reopen — may be considered. Participants must pass pre-activity screenings and live in the same community.

The return of tackle football on the youth or high school level will be a localized decision. 

Hallenbeck notes that monitoring athletes' health throughout is imperative.

"At any point if you start to get issues, you shouldn't go forward," he said.

The hope, of course, is that there is a path to a safe and healthy return to the field for youngsters.

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