The guidance for opening up high school athletics and activities has begun to trickle down from the Virginia High School League (VHSL) and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
While there are still a lot of uncertainties regarding the exact dates to see practices, conditioning, games and activities resume, there’s one thing for certain – in the foreseeable future there will be a new look to everything athletic.
On May 19th, the VHSL announced it was developing plans for reopening of fall athletics and activities. They noted to ensure all compliance with possible state directives from the Governor, Virginia Department of Education, the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC with the reopening of schools for the fall of 2020, the VHSL is developing plans for the reopening of fall athletics and activities by putting the health, safety and well-being of student-athletes, student-activity participants, coaches, administrators, officials and supporters first. In all instances, reopening will only happen in accordance with the Governor’s directives on when to return to school, when schools can return to practice and when schools can return to competition.
“What we have been doing and will continue to do, is to strongly advocate for our student-athletes for a reopening of fall sports and activities,” said VHSL Executive Director, Dr. John W. “Billy”Haun. “We know how much has been taken away from our students by the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to advocate for them and the return of high school athletics and activities. It is important to say, and many already have, as we develop plans there are more questions than answers. Because of that, we cannot put a timeline on when decisions will be completed and announced to the public until many of those questions become answerable.”
As a member of the NFHS, the VHSL works closely with other states in developing guidelines for the reopening of sports, as well as monitoring NCAA reopening guidelines. The VHSL will use the NSHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee “Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities” to create guidelines for Virginia’s schools.
On May 20th, the NFHS issued its first directive and recommendations for the return of fall activities including four questions state associations may want to consider:
1.) Will your state association conduct an athletics/activities regular season or championship if public schools statewide are closed to in-person learning? The VHSL has already commented that you can’t have sports and activities if schools are closed.
2.) Will your state association conduct an athletics/activities regular season or championship if schools are closed only in COVID-19 “hotspots” in your state. Currently, this is recognizable in Virginia with regard to restaurants and businesses in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Tidewater versus areas like the Roanoke Valley, where COVID-19 cases are significantly less.
3.) Will your state association conduct an athletics/activities regular season or championship in sports deemed “lower-risk” for COVID-19 transmission while cancelling those considered “higher-risk?”
4.) Are there recommendations unique to your state, or regions of your state, that you need to take into consideration when developing return-to-activity guideline?
Higher-risk sports include football, wrestling, boys lacrosse and competitive cheer and dance.
Moderate-risk sports include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, water polo, gymnastics, ice hockey, field hockey, tennis, swimming relays, pole vault, high jump, girls lacrosse, crew and 7-on-7 football.
Lower-risk sports include individual running events, throwing events such as javelin, shot put and discus, individual swimming, golf, weightlifting, alpine skiing, sideline cheer, single sculling and cross county running with staggered starts.
Restrictions and recommendations are also being given as the variations and transfer from Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 recoveries take place.Virginia just began Phase 1 in mid-May. For example, The NFHS is recommending cloth face masks be used during Phase 1 and 2, except for swimming, distance running or other high intensity aerobic activity. Plastic face shields covering the entire face, or attached to a helmet, shall not be allowed. Referees may begin using artificial noise makers like an air-horn in place of a traditional whistle. Testing regimens, specific guidelines regarding mass gatherings and response to a student or team member testing positive are under review.
Due to the near certainty of recurrent outbreaks this coming fall and winter in some locales, state associations must be prepared for periodic school closures and the possibility of some teams having to isolate for two to three weeks while in season. Plus, development of policies regarding practice and/or competition during temporary school closures, the cancellation of contests during the regular season and policies for post-season events.
With the uncertainty of which phase will be attained at the beginning of a sports season or maintained during a season, scheduling contests that require less travel when possible should be considered. Different regions may open up at different times.
Restrictions moving from Phase 1 to Phase 3 are significant.
For example, in Phase 1, all students and coaches should be screened prior to each workout. No gatherings of more than 10 people, no locker rooms should be used, workouts should be done in “pods” of students with the same 5-10 students always working together. Social distancing of 6 feel must be maintained indoors and outdoors. Major cleaning regimens must take place and players should arrive in equipment and immediately return home afterward.
Examples of limitations during Phase 1 were given by the NFHS.
1.) A football player should not participate in team drills with a single ball that will be handed off or passed to other teammates. Contact with other players is not allowed.
2.) A basketball player can shoot a ball,. but a team should not practice/pass a single ball among the team where multiple players touch the same ball. This will have a major impact on open gyms and camps that typically begin in June.
3.) A volleyball player should not use a single ball that others touch or hit in any manner.
4.) Softball and baseball players should not throw a single ball that will be tossed among the team.
All students shall bring their own water bottle. Water stations, water troughs, coolers, water fountains or shared water bottles should not be utilized.
Phase 2 restrictions include no inside gatherings of more 10 people, and up to 50 individuals outside for workouts. Workout areas, gyms and locker rooms must adhere to the 6 foot social distancing. Lower risk sports practices and competitions may resume. Moderate risk sports may begin modified practices.
Phase 3 eases limitations on gathering sizes of up to 50 individuals, indoors or outdoors. Moderate risk sports practices and competitions may begin. Modified practices may begin for Higher risk sports, with the consideration of data and experiences in other states to determine when Higher risk sports competitions may resume.
Finally, who should be allowed at events? The NFHS suggests grouping people into tiers from essential to non-essential and decide which tiers will allowed at an event:
Cave Spring High School head football coach Tim Fulton, the dean of “Big-11” head coaches, reflected on how his squad is preparing for the upcoming fall campaign. Football practice for VHSL schools was originally scheduled to begin Monday, August 3, with the opening weekend of the regular season set for the last weekend of August for most schools.
“”First, the Governor has to allow Virginia schools to open,” Fulton noted in an exclusive phone interview with The Star May 23. “The good news there is that some schools in other states have started back. Cave Spring can’t control what happens on that end and must live by those decisions and policies.””I’ve been telling our players via on-line communication the things we need to control are our attitude, our effort and to stay positive in order to be prepared for the reopening,” Fulton added. “At Cave Spring we’re going to be smart in phasing back in with a plan for returning to play. You can’t bring kids back and just throw them into games. The safety of every student, player and member our team and school is the top priority.”
The next key dates for possible clues to when fall high school sports may resume will be when Northam moves Virginia into Phase 2 and, eventually Phase 3, when schools actually reopen throughout the state, and information released by the VHSL Executive Committee after their next meeting scheduled for June 25.
Return to normal sports practices and competitions becomes closer each day, but what we see when that time arrives is obviously going to be a new look for high school athletics.