Supporters of local high school sports can breathe a sigh of relief.
Next month’s winter sports season was cleared for liftoff last week when Virginia Governor Ralph G. Northam signed the fourth amendment to Executive Order 67, removing the 10 feet of social distancing required in Phase 3 guidelines for recreational activities.
With that stipulation removed, contact sports now are permitted. Basketball and sideline cheerleading will start Dec. 7, with wrestling, indoor track and swimming commencing Dec. 14.
Other sports previously banned by Phase 3 restrictions included football, field hockey, volleyball, soccer and lacrosse, and are now set to resume as well.
Fall sports practices will start Feb. 4 for football and competition cheerleading and Feb. 15 for the remaining sports. The first football game date is Feb. 22. All spring sports begin practice on April 12 and will be finished by June 26.
High school sports competitions in Virginia have been shut down since March 13 due to COVID-19. Teams are currently permitted to hold offseason workouts.
“Keeping our student athletes safe is critical during this pandemic,” Northam said in a press release. “I know I join many parents in looking forward to the safe return of school sports. [The Virginia High School League] has been a tremendous partner throughout the COVID crisis, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness and diligence they have put in development of these guidelines for returning to play.”
VHSL executive director Billy Haun acknowledged the importance of the news.
“This amendment by the Governor clears the way for all of our sports to play,” Haun said. “We appreciate the time, effort and input staff received while preparing this document. Adherence to these guidelines will offer a safe reopening for our students, coaches, staff, officials and communities once we start playing in December."
The VHSL also released a 39-page paper outlining general guidelines and extensive sport-specific regulations to mitigate possible COVID-19 transmission among athletes,coaches, officials, administrators and spectators.
The VHSL staff received input from VHSL and NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committees (SMAC), the NCAA, the Virginia Department of Health, USA Football, USA Field Hockey, US Lacrosse, USA Wrestling, the National Wrestling Coaches Association, VHSL school administrators and VHSL coaches advisory committees while preparing the extensive protocols.
While the VHSL’s plans may proceed, it's hardly business as usual.
The VHSL's Executive Committee previously had voted to limit teams to 60 percent of the normal number of contests due to the compressed time frame following the postponement of fall sports. Now, the schools will have to deal with strict guidelines that will be small issues for some sports while causing major impacts on others.
"There are going to be a lot of things that are very, very different. Lots of changes coaches are going to have to make...to play the game under these regulations," Fauquier High activities director Mark Ott said.
"There are a lot of these we have to discuss in a short amount of time to make this work," he added.
Needless to say, the news has activities directors scrambling to get organized since there has never been a sports calendar like this.
“We are definitely preparing schedules and discussing strategies for safe implementation of athletic events,” said Unity Reed AD Kevin Turner.
To Kettle Run AD Paul Frye, the inconveniences involved in restarting are worth the effort.
"It's going to be a burden," he said. "[But] it's necessary for the kids to play, so we are going to do it. Hopefully in the next six weeks we will be able to pull it off."
Boys lacrosse, for example, is facing major modifications in play, including a ban on all body contact/checks. Only stick checks will be permitted.
Faceoffs will be eliminated for the season, and a coin toss will determine which team is awarded the ball at midfield to begin the game. After each goal, the team scored upon will be awarded the ball at midfield with no player within five yards.
Scheduling also will be affected. Schools may not compete in events involving five or more schools or competitions hosted by anyone but a member school. No team can face out-of-state teams.
Fauquier wrestling, and more recently Liberty, have wrestled in the prestigious Beast of the East event. That tournament has been canceled, and many basketball, cross country, track and field, swimming and competition cheerleading invitationals are off the table.
Ott, a former head coach, emphasized that coaches are being asked to do a lot more now.
"How hard is it going to be for a coach?" he asked. "Obviously, they want to focus on the game plan and the fundamentals. Now, they have to worry about all this other stuff behind the scenes.
"You also have to think about this: our coaches don't get paid enough to do all that," Ott said, stressing Fauquier County continues to fall further behind in the area of compensation. If our coaching stipends were on par with other counties around us, you might be able to justify it. It's hard for a coach to do all the extra.
"There are so many questions that can't be answered (now), and I completely understand that," Ott said. "None of us have ever been through this before, so every policy we create, every mitigation plan, is brand new.
"It's not as if we have something to copy."