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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Tyner defenders tackle Howard's Eric Johnson during a game at Howard on Sept. 14, 2019.

This story was updated Tuesday, July 28, 2020, at 10:54 p.m. with more information.

After weeks of uncertainty, high school contact sports teams in Tennessee were finally given the green light to begin preparing for their seasons.

During a Tuesday evening press conference to announce his reopening plan for Tennessee schools, Gov. Bill Lee also issued Executive Order No. 55 to allow contact sports to resume, which would put the state's prep football and girls' soccer programs back on their original schedule provided they follow TSSAA requirements.

Last week the TSSAA approved a proposal that would allow contact sports — football and girls' soccer — to return to the original practice schedule as well as their regular-season game schedules provided Gov. Lee exempted those sports from his state of emergency order that had been issued in late June. The state of emergency order runs through Aug. 29 and had an exemption not been given, teams statewide would have had their seasons pushed back four weeks.

Executive director Bernard Childress said the TSSAA was "elated" to get to notify schools that they can return to the original practice schedule. That means teams can begin full-padded contact practices provided they have completed the heat acclimation process of two days in helmets and three more in helmets and shoulder pads. The plan now is that teams will have three weeks to prepare for the regular-season kickoff on Aug. 21.

"We're very proud that we were able to work with the governor's team to come up with something they felt would work to mitigate the risks as much as possible. We didn't have any indication that this decision was coming until today, but we continued to work to be sure we had our regulations in place just in case we were given this type of good news," Childress said.

"When we found out that this was going to be the announcement, the first thing that came to my mind was now the work really begins. The reason we put together the plan that was voted in last week was with the intent to do everything we possibly could to have a full season."

Although contact practice is now permissible, the regulations and requirements for practice and competition which were voted in by the TSSAA Board of Control last week remain in place. Those include required temperature checks for all coaches, players and team personnel prior to every practice, and mandates that anyone whose temperature exceeds 100.4 degrees must be sent home immediately and cannot return to practice until they have documentation they have tested negative for COVID-19 or obtained a medical evaluation by a physician verifying that COVID-19 is not the cause of the fever.

Scrimmages, jamborees, 7-on-7 practices or other types of practices with other teams will not be permitted. Team-versus-team competition can take place for official contests only.

At all contests coaches, players, team personnel, officials, administrators and fans must have their temperature checked before entering the facility. No one whose temperature measures 100.4 or higher will be admitted. Also, at each contest, a symptom checklist must be posted prominently at each entrance that spectators see before they enter.

At contests in localities where spectators are permitted, member schools are encouraged to limit attendance to a number that will allow social distancing and should designate bleachers or seats in order to promote physical spacing among spectators. Member schools will require all fans to wear facial coverings at all times and to maintain social distancing, and this also applies to school bands, cheerleaders and other similar groups in supporting roles.

Concession stands are discouraged because they tend to invite gatherings of people in close quarters.

"It is because of those regulations that we were able to get to this point," Childress said. "That gave Gov. Lee the confidence to know that we've done what we needed to do for him to make this decision.

"The governor's announcement releases us to begin practicing and preparing to play the seasons as scheduled, but it also puts a major responsibility on everyone involved to do all we can to mitigate the virus. Now we have to make absolutely sure that all the regulations are in place and do our part because our goal was not to just get out there and start but to allow kids to finish their season."

Unlike neighboring counties, Hamilton County teams had not been allowed to use a game ball during practices over the past few weeks. However, county athletic director Brad Jackson said that will no longer be the case, stating all teams within the county will now be allowed to use a ball during group drills.

"I give so much credit to the TSSAA and their legal team to be able to get this handled," Jackson said. "The hardest part of this situation is weighing the physical concerns with COVID-19 compared with the negative effects of kids not being able to have the security of their normal routine, and that includes playing sports. There is a University of Wisconsin study that we just read that said kids are 12 times more likely to suffer mental health issues if they don't get to play their sport.

"Having been in athletics all our life, most of us understand the importance of being a part of a team and how that helps a kid's personal growth and their whole school experience. Today was a job well done by all to get the kids back out on the fields to prepare for their season."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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