The Mississippi High School Activities Association fall sports season started in earnest Monday with volleyball matches beginning across the state. Cross country, swimming and football are scheduled to start later this month. 
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases throughout the state are spiking. Over 3,100 new cases were reported Wednesday, along with 25-coronavirus deaths. 
From July 30-Aug. 5, there were 14,193 COVID-19 cases were recorded, up 4,194 from the previous seven-day span.
Hundreds of Mississippi students tested positive for the coronavirus last week and more than 4,000 students and hundreds of teachers and staff were quarantined after possible exposure.
The Clarion Ledger spoke with MHSAA executive director Rickey Neaves on Monday to discuss the start of fall sports, COVID-19 protocols and the association’s plan to hold sports competitions safely this year.
COVID EXPOSURES IN SCHOOLS: More than 4,000 Mississippi K-12 students quarantined due to COVID exposure from Aug. 2-6
COVID-19 CASES: More than 3,100 new COVID-19 cases reported in Mississippi Wednesday
Clarion Ledger: What are the MHSAA COVID-19 protocols this fall and are there any differences from last year? 
Rickey Neaves: We are keeping all of the protocols as far as social distancing, cleaning aspects about spraying down dressing rooms and things of that nature (and) no sharing of water bottles.
The only difference is right now, there is no mandate from either us or our sports medicine advisory committee on the wearing of masks. Our policy there is that they have to go with their local masking policy. 
We are strongly encouraging students that are of age and can be vaccinated. We are not requiring that because we feel that is a personal choice between the parents and their sons and daughters. We are still doing screening procedures and one of the big differences now is if a student is fully vaccinated then if they are exposed they do not have to be quarantined. Close contact quarantines, we’re still doing that with our positive cases. 
We are not limiting attendance, once again, that’s a personal choice. If someone decides to go to a volleyball game or a football game then they are free to go.
CL: What has MHSAA done to communicate to coaches and athletic directors throughout the state about the delta variant and was there a point where it almost changed this year’s COVID-19 protocols? 
RN: We really were going to do away with the social distancing and hoping for a normal year — whatever that is. That’s what we were hoping for. We have changed. 
One of the things that we are doing this year, if a school has to go virtual because of COVID, they will not be allowed to play, and any games on their schedule will be forfeited. We just felt like if the school was bad enough to go virtual that we shouldn’t still be allowing them to congregate with other schools and play. Or other schools come to them and play. That is new to us, but all this information is sent out on a sometimes daily basis to all of our schools.
NO SPORTS FOR VIRTUAL SCHOOLS: MHSAA says schools in virtual learning because of COVID will forfeit games
K-12 AND COVID: COVID-19 outbreaks are already appearing in Mississippi schools. Doctors fear things could get worse
CL: Is there any pressure either from yourself or the association to keep this season as “normal” as possible? 
RN: I do feel pressure, but that pressure is from within myself because I do realize and I think statistics will show how important it is for our student athletes to be able to play sports and how it helps them to develop. We do feel pressure from ourselves to offer these (sports), but in a way, that is safe and does not cause an outbreak and things like that. We don’t feel pressure from any outside sources. It’s just the pressure we feel within ourselves for our schools to be able to do this and develop these programs as we’re used to.
CL: Have there been any discussion on changing COVID-19 protocols for indoor and outdoor sports? 
RN: Yes, we’ve had discussions about that, and in fact, this past Friday, I had a phone conference with our sports medicine advisory committee. I was also on a Zoom call with Dr. Paul Byers and Dr. Claude Brunson from the Mississippi Department of Health and we talked about the difference between outdoor sports and indoor sports. We’re fortunate right now — we usually don’t have maximum attendance at volleyball games. Right now we’re not having to limit that because there’s plenty of room available in the gym for them to spread out. If they follow local, CDC and school district policies, we do feel like that’s safe. It is something that we have on our radar and something that we are looking at. 
CL: What specific COVID-19 data did you rely on this summer when creating coronavirus protocols? 
RN: The data that I’m personally leaning on most is really three fold: the number of cases per day, the number of hospitalizations and deaths. Out of those three, the most important to us are the number of hospitalizations and the number of deaths. 
CL: What is the No. 1 concern or topics that frequently come up in meetings with athletic directors and principals about COVID-19, especially concerning thedelta variant, heading into the fall? 
RN: They are concerned about students being back in the classroom and schools opening up. But, they also feel like our schools are the safest place for most of these students to be with all the precautions our schools are taking inside and outside of the classroom. Most (athletic directors) will say ‘you’re not going to keep 15 to 17-year-olds apart.’ So with the protocols that we follow, we do feel like the safest place for them to be is in school. 
CL: What’s going through your mind as you see cases ramping up right before the start of fall sports? 
RN: The first thing that went through my mind was here we go again. I was on staff last year when COVID hit, and I’ve been here 10 years prior and we went through that, so I was experienced with how we handled it in the past. The next thing is what measures do we need to start taking right now to ensure that our schools can have the seasons and activities in a way that is safe. 

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