Schools Ahead Of Curve On New Sports Safety Rules

BERLIN — The State Board of Education this week handed down emergency regulations aimed at further protecting high school athletes from head injuries and concussions, but, for the most part, the local school system has already implemented and exceeded the policies.

The new mandates address the diagnosis and treatment of head injuries and concussions, a hot topic in sports news at every level in recent months. However, with new guidelines borne out of the state legislature last year on head injuries and concussions for coaches and athletic directors across Maryland, Worcester County schools are already adhering to many of the policies handed down this week.

For example, according to the state board’s mandates, each local school system shall train each coach in concussion risk and management, including criteria for removal and return to play, along with recognition of concussion symptoms. In addition, each school system is required to implement policies that assure athletes and their parents or guardians receive information about the nature and risk of brain injuries. 
However, in Worcester and other counties across the Eastern Shore in the Bayside Conference, the criteria are already being met, and in some cases, the local policies are stronger than the state recommendations.

“The state law on concussions and head injuries really went into effect last summer, so we’ve been ahead of the curve on this in Worcester,” said Snow Hill High School Athletic Trainer Ben Waples. “There are things in this new policy released this week that we’ve been doing for a year now. Everything we’ve done up to this point is to comply with the state regulations and go beyond that.”

At Stephen Decatur High School, Athletic Director Don Howard agreed Worcester and most of the schools in the Bayside Conference have been proactive.

“The discussion on the concussion policies really started last year, but it’s still very much on the front burner,” he said. “At Decatur, and at all of the schools in Worcester, we’ve tried to be very proactive. For example, we require each of our coaches to take a course in how to recognize the symptoms and the process for returning to play.”

The state’s emergency regulations handed down this week also require a medical assessment if any student-athlete is suspected of sustaining a concussion or other brain injury. The athlete will not be allowed to return to the contest until cleared by a licensed health care provider authorized to provide sports physical examinations. At Decatur, for example, the school has adopted a five-day minimum waiting period for student-athletes to return to action after a head injury or concussion.

Local schools have new tools at their disposal for diagnosing and managing head injuries and concussions. For example, Atlantic Physical Therapy owner Bob Hammond has put in place a machine at his facilities that measures and stores a baseline for balance and other cognitive functions for athletes, which are saved and can compared to later tests if head injuries or concussions are suspected. Hammond is making the machine available to all student-athletes in the county for free.

“It’s really a pretty incredible machine,” said Hammond. “The test takes about six minutes and it creates a baseline for the student-athletes that is stored at the beginning of a season. Then, if there is even a possibility of a head injury or a concussion, we can get them back in and do another test to compare to the baseline.”

Equally important to concussion and head injury concerns is the issue of heat acclimation. The state’s athletic association has handed down strict guidelines this year limiting practice times and the level of competition for student-athletes in Maryland.

As a result, gone are the days of two-a-day practices during August for high school sports programs. For example, the state’s new policy dictates practices can only be held for three hours at a time and there has to be a three-hour break between activity. The rules apply to all sports, but are even more stringent for football.

“Every year there seems to be some big thing and this year it’s heat acclimation,” said Waples. “The state has issued a model policy and our Bayside Conference has issued its own policy. After reading through both, it looks like the Bayside policy is even more stringent then the what the state has presented.”

The new heat acclimation rules have athletic directors around the region scrambling to adjust practice and scrimmage schedules.

“It came to us kind of late, but we’re working on getting a county policy together,” said Howard. “We have the state model, and the Bayside Conference has issued its own guidelines. We’re trying to tailor our county policies using the state’s model as a guide and making ours even more stringent in some cases.”

In Worcester, the sports safety changes are being taken in stride for the most part.

“We’re very fortunate in Worcester County to have athletic trainers at each of our high schools,” said Waples. “We work together on some of these things and make sure we’re being proactive on these student-athlete safety issues.”