Will fall sports — including football — be played at Virginia high schools in 2020?
VHSL executive director Billy Haun does not have that answer, but the head of the governing body over athletics and activities at the state’s 317 member schools said this week that if social distancing is in effect in classrooms because of COVID-19 there is a “real possibility” that no sports will be contested this fall.
The VHSL Executive Committee — the league’s legislative body composed largely of school superintendents, principals and athletic directors — will meet June 25, but Haun said any decision about fall sports hinges on when and how Gov. Ralph Northam allows schools across Virginia to open.
“The bottom line is this, until we know what the reopening of schools in the fall is going to look like, it’s hard to figure out how athletics and activities are going to play a role in that,” Haun said.
“It all depends on when schools reconvene. Anything’s possible at this point.”
Haun said one of those possibilities is beginning a reduced fall sports season after January 1 followed by shortened winter and spring sports calendars.
The VHSL’s fall schedule includes football, cross country, field hockey, golf, volleyball and competitive cheer.
“One of the things we’re looking at is, if we can’t do anything through the fall, is there a scenario where January through June could you possibly get in a reduced season for all three seasons?” Haun said.
With approximately two months until the first official start of football practice and the scheduled beginning of classes, much will depend on whether social distancing will be in effect in Virginia’s schools.
“I don’t think this is a great possibility of opening [sports] on time, full blown,” Haun said. “There could be delayed opening where fall sports could be a scenario, but I think there’s a real possibility where we could have some kind of a social distancing, staggered-type schedule through the first semester which could make it impossible to do any sports through the fall.
“If you’re on a staggered schedule and you’re having kids coming to school on [different] days ... if you don’t have kids in your buildings and it’s not safe to bring them in there for learning, how safe is it going to be to bring them to do practices? I just don’t see how we could justify to do that.
“Are there some possibilities of doing some conditioning or small-group coaching? I think that’s a real possibility.”
Haun said he is unsure whether there will be a “one-size-fits-all” approach to playing sports statewide, allowing some areas with fewer COVID-19 cases could be on a different time frame than areas that are considered COVID “hot spots.”
“That’s something that will be answered when the governor reveals the plan for opening schools,” he said. “Will the plan say that everybody will open at the same time and do the same thing?
“There certainly are differences. You’ve got Dickenson County, the last time I checked, that has zero cases. Then you’ve got other situations where the numbers are growing every single day. Henrico County just put out a thing last Friday and they had up to five ideas on what a reopening of school might look like.”
Haun said the VHSL is giving little consideration to playing football and other fall sports in the spring and moving the 2021 spring sports season to the fall.
“I haven’t had anybody show me the advantages of flipping the seasons,” he said. “If you’re going to be doing social distancing and you can’t have the fall season, you can’t have baseball or soccer social [while] distancing any better than you could play volleyball or cheer or football.”
The VHSL director noted multiple financial considerations involved if schools operate under social distancing.
High school athletic departments also rely heavily on football revenue to operate many of their other sports programs.
“Most of our school divisions depend on that football and basketball revenue,” Haun said. “The thing that has to be considered a lot is school board budgets. If you’re going to do social distancing on a 60-person school bus, you’re going to need [two buses] or three.
“Then you’re talking about extra cleaning and extra people managing the school; there’s a lot of expense. In any athletic scenario one thing we have to think about is what can school divisions afford?”
Haun said the VHSL’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee has two scheduled meetings this week to discuss scenarios covering the opening of fall sports.
Two weeks ago, the National Federation of High Schools sent out a 14-page set of suggested guidelines to state associations regarding ways to safely conduct athletics.
“It had some really good information in there. There’s some very smart people on that NFHS SMAC committee,” Haun said. “They were trying to put out a guideline that would fit all 51 associations.
“Our SMAC committee is looking at that document to see how it may apply, how it may not apply, how it may need to be altered a little bit to fit the situation in Virginia.”
The VHSL is hearing more questions than it can answer. Haun advised that the situation is fluid.
“Eight weeks from now is August the 1st,” he said. “If you think eight weeks back, April the 1st. A lot has changed since April the 1st. I think we can still have that amount of change that takes place between June the 1st and August the 1st.