By Jace Frederick (St. Paul Pioneer Press)

Youth sports, including high school athletics, can resume games and scrimmages on Jan. 14, per Minnesota Department of Health guidelines. Practices for all youth sports can resume on Monday (Jan. 4).

“The decision to resume sports does not mean engaging in sports is without risk. Any time you gather with other people, you are putting yourself and others at risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” the guidance reads. “COVID-19 can lead to serious medical conditions and even death for people of all ages. We cannot predict who will become severely ill, although we know that older people and people with underlying health conditions are at higher risk. We do not yet know what the long-term effects of COVID-19 are; even people with mild cases may experience long-term complications. People with symptoms and without symptoms can spread COVID-19. The masking, distancing and other guidance is intended to reduce the risk of transmission, but does not eliminate it.”

“These experiences are so important to students and they have been anxiously waiting to get these winter seasons started,” MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens said. “By implementing these safety protocols recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and required by the Minnesota Department of Health, we have the best chance to provide safe seasons with reduced interruptions and also plan for full postseason experiences.”

Face coverings will be required for athletes competing in practices and games except in wrestling, swimming and diving, gymnastics and cheerleading, for fear of them becoming a choking hazard, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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This means basketball and hockey players will have to compete in face coverings, something many schools in Western Wisconsin have already been doing in many sports since the start of the school year. Michigan mandated masks in football, volleyball and soccer. Many states in the Northeast portion of the country have mandated masks during competitions, as has North Carolina.

“People are not permitted to remove their face coverings during activities that involve a high level of exertion,” the guidance reads.

Jan. 14 was the earliest most Minnesota State High School League sports could resume given the Jan. 4 practice start and the League’s mandatory 10-day practice period to start seasons. The MSHSL has previously stated it would be ready to resume competitions as soon as the state allowed.

Practices cannot exceed pod sizes of 25. More guidance on game play is expected.

The announcement of the first allowable day of competition for youth sports puts into effect a winter and spring athletics calendar approved by the MSHSL at its most recent board meeting.

The approved calendar was slated to feature an 11-week season for boys swimming and diving, a 12-week season for wrestling and gymnastics, and a 13-week season for basketball and hockey.

Section and state tournament dates and locations have not been finalized, but the MSHSL has said it intends to conduct postseason competitions. The planned calendar is set to see the final winter state tournaments conclude either the week of March 29 or the week of April 5.

Most spring sports are scheduled to begin practices the week of March 29 and competition the week of April 12 with state tournaments concluding the week of June 14.

“We are excited for the opportunity to start both practices and contests in this winter season,” Martens said. “The commitment to safety by our more than 500 member schools is critical to not only start our seasons, but to finish them as well.”

Park Rapids will open the season on Jan. 14 with the boys hockey team traveling to Pequot Lakes to play Northern Lakes and the girls basketball team travelling to Frazee. The Park Rapids boys basketball team will host Aitkin on Jan. 15. The Park Rapids boys swimming and diving team begins the season by hosting Detroit Lakes on Jan. 19. The Park Rapids wrestling team has a triangular meet at Red Lake County Central on Jan. 21 while the Park Rapids gymnastics team opens the season by hosting Perham on Jan. 28.