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VHSL opts for condensed seasons

The high school sports landscape will see a marked shift for the upcoming school year, as the Virginia High School League has adopted new return-to-play guidelines that call for condensed seasons and altered practicing and playing timelines.

However, even with the announcement, VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun said there are many uncertainties to be worked out, and it is contingent upon the state staying in Phase III of its reopening process.

According to the plan adopted July 27 by its executive committee in a 34-1 vote, no sports can begin practicing until mid-December.

“This is an extremely difficult decision,” Haun said. “All of you know that. All of you know how important high school activities are to our student-athletes, to our coaches, to our parents, just to our school communities. This was not a decision that was made lightly. … Everybody took this very, very seriously.”

Those competing in winter sports such as basketball, gymnastics, indoor track, swimming and diving and wrestling would be able to practice beginning Dec. 14, with no competitions or games to be scheduled until Dec. 28 and the season running through Feb. 20.

Sports that normally operate in the fall — football, cheer, cross country, field hockey, golf and volleyball — will not be able to start practicing until Feb. 15, with games running from March 1 through May 1.

The spring sports season — for those who play baseball, softball, lacrosse, soccer, tennis and track and field — would begin April 12 and go through June 26, with the first games to be played no earlier than April 26.

Haun said during a virtual press conference that the specific timelines for each season could change, and the plan the Executive Committee adopted could change depending on whether the state, or regions within the state, move beyond Phase III, or move backwards from it. He also said it is possible that the VHSL could reclassify some of its sports into different categories based on accommodations it could put into place to mitigate risk factors.

He said the Executive Committee would have to revisit the plan if any executive orders come out that put different regions in different phases. He said if the state, or certain areas, moved beyond Phase III, he expects guidance to come from Gov. Ralph Northam, the Virginia Department of Health and the state Department of Education.

“If certain parts of the state move back to Phase II, or certain parts of the state move beyond Phase III,” Haun said, “then I think we’ll have to come back to the Executive Committee and look and see what the implications are there.”

The VHSL moved to cancel all sports activities in March just prior to state championship events for boys’ and girls’ basketball in Class 3, 4 and 5.

School divisions currently can allow athletes to participate in offseason conditioning as long as they have submitted a health plan to the state Department of Education. Its Executive Committee voted July 15 to eliminate the dead period for offseason conditioning that would have normally taken place during the last part of July and the beginning of August.

Haun said the VHSL would release Phase III guidelines for offseason conditioning July 28. He said in those plans, it is talking about allowing schools, coaches and teams to use more sports-specific equipment.

The VHSL has classified its sanctioned sports into three categories: lower infection risk activities, moderate infection risk activities and higher infection risk activities.

Lower infection risk activities include swimming and diving, golf, gymnastics, tennis, forensics/debate, Scholastic Bowl and e-sports.

The VHSL has classified baseball, softball, cross country, soccer, track and field, theater and robotics as moderate infection risk activities.

Higher infection risk activities include basketball, field hockey, football, lacrosse, cheer, wrestling and volleyball.

Spectators would be allowed to attend games, but attendance at any venue will be capped at 250 people, which includes athletes, coaches, officials and athletic trainers.

“We will continue to work with our sport-specific groups, with the (National Federation of State High School Associations), the NCAA, with all of our other groups that are out there, and continue to find ways (that) if a sport is considered to be sort of a high-risk sport right now, what are the things that we can put in place to mitigate that.”

He said possible postseason activities for sports will be discussed by the Executive Committee next month, adding if no state championships are played, it would have a “huge impact” on the VHSL. He said an event like a cross country state championship event would likely meet or exceed the 250-person cap, so no spectators would be allowed for it.

“It would have a huge impact on us, since about 35, 40 percent of our finances, our income, comes from state events,” Haun said. “But at the same time, if we have those and have a limited number of people who come, that’s going to be a financial impact as well.”

Haun said he is unsure even if the VHSL were to offer sports that a local school board would allow athletics for its school division to take place, saying that they would likely have to consult with their health plans and their local health departments to determine whether to continue allowing students to play. And Tom Dolan, VHSL associate director, said that if there’s an outbreak among officials in a sport, that those sports would have to shut down.

If a sport has to pause due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Haun said it would be difficult for it to restart unless it was in the same season, and it would not likely be able to move into another part of the year due to possible conflicts with other sports.

Haun said the goal is to get higher-risk sports into the moderate-risk category and added he understands the benefits of high school athletics to the education process. He said it’s important to the physical and mental well-being of students.

“While we cannot move forward with competitions right now,” Haun said, “we do want to continue with the opportunity for our schools, and our coaches, and our trainers, to be able to work with our kids to bring them in, to have opportunities to condition, do sports-specific-type practice things, use sports-specific equipment and keep those students engaged.

“We understand it’s important. We want to make sure that happens (and) we’ll support that in any way that we can for any school.”