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The Southeastern Conference chancellors and presidents have voted to allow football and men's and women's basketball players to return to campus for voluntary in-person team activities June 8 at the earliest, the league announced Friday.

Each school must follow a strict set of safety guidelines during what the SEC is calling a transition period to gradually allow athletes back on campus for workouts. The SEC had suspended all on-campus team activities through May 31 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council voted to allow football and basketball players to return to campus for voluntary workouts on June 1.

Shortly after the SEC's announcement, Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk released a statement confirming that MU athletes in those sports can return to team facilities on June 8 to begin workouts. Mizzou's goal remains to start the fall sports season on time, Sterk said.

"The health, safety and well-being of Mizzou's student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans is paramount and will be at the forefront in our decision-making process regarding the challenges we face with the COVID-19 pandemic," Sterk said. "For well over a month, our internal Mizzou Sports Park repopulation committee has worked with MU Health Care, University, city and county officials to design a comprehensive plan for safely bringing student-athletes back to campus next month in anticipation of resuming workouts.

"Our goal remains an on time start to the fall sports season for all of our teams, and having football, men's basketball and women's basketball players return June 8 for voluntary workouts is the first step on that journey forward in today's challenging climate. I expect that at some point down the road the NCAA and SEC will allow student-athletes from other sports to return, and when they do, we will likely phase those in starting with the remaining fall sports teams.

"The guidance we have received from MU Health Care, as well as city and county officials, and the SEC's Medical Task Force, has provided a roadmap that allows us to safely open our facilities for supervised voluntary activities while continuing to provide academic support, medical and mental health care, and meals to our student-athletes that they would not have access to if they were at home."

The voluntary team activities can only be supervised by strength and conditioning personnel, not head coaches or assistant coaches. The SEC's decision was made with the guidance of the SEC's Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force that was formed in April by the league's presidents and chancellors and comprised of a public health, infectious disease and sports medicine professionals from each of the SEC's 14 schools. Mizzou's representative on the Task Force is Dr. Stevan Whitt, MU Associate Professor of Medicine, Divisions of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Infectious Diseases.

In an appearance Thursday on the Paul Finebaum Show on the SEC Network, Sterk said that Mizzou does not plan to administer COVID-19 tests to athletes who returns to campus. MU’s medical experts have told Sterk a COVID-19 test costs around $65. The SEC Task Force recommends tests only for symptomatic team members.

“We've had advice that the best prevention and the best way to handle this is doing all those preventative measures of testing temperature, keeping things sanitized, making sure that we're screening on daily basis, wearing masks if you can't keep the six-feet separation, making sure that people at risk take extra precautions, all those things to try to prevent” Sterk said. “And then if there are symptoms then you test. At this point in time we're not going to be testing everyone as they come in. We could if things change and the validity of the test improve we might do that. But our experts are saying it's better on the prevention side and then to test and trace from there.”

That's not the approach some other schools in the SEC are taking. While most SEC schools have announced plans to begin workouts June 8, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina said all of their athletes will undergo COVID-19 testing before starting any athletic activity on campus. At South Carolina, athletes will also be given antibody tests to indicate if they previously had the virus. 

The Big Ten has not announced a set date for its athletes to return to campus, but Illinois plans to bring athletes back starting June 3 with staggered arrivals plus “robust” testing for ongoing virus and antibody. 

On the recommendation of Dr. Whitt, MU decided against testing en masse, a team spokesman confirmed, though athletes who are traveling from from hot spot areas and athletes with any pre-existing conditions (high blood pressure, overweight, etc.) could be tested when they report for workouts. MU athletes rehabbing injuries have been allowed to use the team facilities this spring and several have been turned away because of low-grade fevers or allergy symptoms, a source confirmed.

As for athletes in sports outside of football and basketball, MU plans to bring them back to campus with staggered arrivals later this summer.

Sterk also said medical experts have told SEC athletics directors that athletes will be safer at team facilities on campus than they would be training in their hometowns.

Sterk noted that in Mizzou’s weight room there’s fogging machines that help sanitize the equipment.

“As opposed to going to an open gym in the community where there may not be those kinds of restrictions,” he said. “The physician group, the team trainers and the coaches feel that that's probably the safest place they can be. That’s what we want. We want to continue to build on that and build confidence for the moms and dads and the student-athletes that’s it’s a good place. I know talking to ours, the student-athletes are chomping at the bit to come back. We do have some here, and they have big smiles on their faces. They're doing rehab in our facilities and, and we're providing meals to those and we have some have homes overseas and they've been here the whole time. The others that are at their own homes really want to come back as soon as they can.”

The SEC Task Force prepared a series of recommended practices for screening, testing, monitoring, tracing, social distancing and maintaining cleaned environments for each school to follow. Teams are allowed to create their own plans for screening and testing their athletes who return to campus, but the Task Force hopes its recommendations serve as a roadmap for each school.

In addition to cleaning facilities and promoting social distancing, the Task Force made the following recommendations:

• Enhanced education of all team members on health and wellness best practices, including but not limited to preventing the spread of COVID-19

• A three-stage screening process that involves screening before student-athletes arrive on campus, within 72 hours of entering athletics facilities and on a daily basis upon resumption of athletics activities

• Testing of symptomatic team members (including all student-athletes, coaches, team support and other appropriate individuals)

• Immediate isolation of team members who are under investigation or diagnosed with COVID-19 followed by contact tracing, following CDC and local public health guidelines

• A transition period that allows athletes to gradually adapt to full training and sport activity following a period of inactivity.

"The safe and healthy return of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and our greater university communities have been and will continue to serve as our guiding principle as we navigate this complex and constantly-evolving situation," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. "At this time, we are preparing to begin the fall sports season as currently scheduled, and this limited resumption of voluntary athletic activities on June 8 is an important initial step in that process. Thanks to the blueprint established by our Task Force and the dedicated efforts of our universities and their athletics programs, we will be able to provide our student-athletes with far better health and wellness education, medical and psychological care and supervision than they would otherwise receive on their own while off campus or training at public facilities as states continue to reopen."

Dave Matter

@dave_matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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