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To play or not to play? Western Tidewater schools grapple with choice

By Stephen Cowles and Jimmy LaRoue

Across Western Tidewater and the rest of the state, public school divisions and private schools alike have been grappling with whether to continue with winter sports in the wake of a COVID-19 surge that compelled Gov. Ralph Northam to impose a modified stay-at-home order beginning Dec. 14.

Southampton and Surry county schools both had already decided to forego winter sports before Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon, citing increasing COVID-19 cases in the city, hit the pause button on athletic activity until at least Dec. 21.

The Virginia High School League said 21 school divisions, and 38 high schools overall, have decided not to participate in winter sports as of Dec. 8. In South Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake public schools have all put a freeze on winter sports activities, though none have outright canceled their winter sports seasons.

Northam reiterated at a media briefing last week that he has left decisions about schools reopening and participating in athletics up to the individual school divisions and the schools themselves, and public school divisions and private schools alike have made their own decisions about resuming athletics.

The ones who have canceled winter sports, or have suspended activity, have cited increasing positive COVID-19 cases in their respective localities for doing so.

Gordon made the announcement to suspend winter sports activities at the Suffolk School Board’s Dec. 10 meeting.

“We’re going to shut down athletics for the Virginia High School League because of our current metrics,” Gordon said. “We will shut those down for one week at a time until those metrics return to an acceptable level for competition.”

The city’s seven-day positivity rate was 9.8% on Dec. 7, but had increased to 10.9% as of Dec. 11, prompting his decision, which affects Lakeland, King’s Fork and Nansemond River high schools, which had just begun winter sports tryouts and practices for some sports. The Eastern Region’s seven-day positivity was 10.1% Dec. 7, and cases per 100,000 people for both the region and city were 25.7 and 31.0, respectively.

Across Western Tidewater, seven-day positivity rates range from just over 5% in Surry, to 7% in Southampton, 7.3% in Isle of Wight, about 9.9% in Franklin, with Suffolk’s the highest in the region.

In the announcement posted to the division’s website, it said the suspension of participation in VHSL activities includes practices, workouts and conditioning “and any other activity associated with extracurricular events for the students of Suffolk Public Schools.”

The division said it would review the health metrics Dec. 21 to determine whether it is safe to return for both students and staff, and that it would review the health metrics on a week-to-week basis to determine when winter sports and activities could resume.

Gordon decided not to wait until the weekly health metrics were updated because they were still trending upward. He said during a Facebook Live chat Dec. 11 that the city’s seven-day positivity had exceeded 10%.

“I didn’t feel it was necessary to get another day in for practices,” Gordon said. “We always want to keep the safety of our students and staff first.”

He stressed during his Facebook Live chat that he is not canceling the winter sports season, but rather pausing it.

“I completely understand that the need for our students to participate in extracurricular activities and events is something that really drives many of our students to want to come to school, to want to do well, to want to be successful,” Gordon said. “I was the same way as a student. I was a former basketball coach, so I’m really a big believer on the importance of extracurricular activities.”

When sports are able to resume and games and competitions begin, Suffolk Public Schools plans to stream all of its home games and competitions through Pixellot. Anyone wanting to watch will have to pay $9 per month, or $69 per season, to access the games, Gordon said.

The streaming is a partnership with the National Federation of High Schools, and in Suffolk, is being coordinated by division Director of Technology John Littlefield and Director of Secondary Leadership Dr. Ron Leigh.

Gordon said work has begun to install the cameras in the schools’ gyms, and said everything would be in place after the start of the new year.

At the November Southampton County School Board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn Shannon recommended forgoing athletic competitions such as basketball. Instead, the hope is to do other sports in 2021 depending on COVID conditions.

Surry High School athletic director James Pope said it is not participating in winter sports “due to our school being pretty much virtual up until Feb. 1, which is the end of our first semester. If we are back in a hybrid situation, we will participate in fall sports — football, volleyball and golf.”

And though Windsor and Smithfield high schools have planned a winter season, Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs said prior to Northam’s announcement that the division was waiting to learn if and how Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions might affect schedules.

At least one Western Tidewater public school, Franklin High School, will have a season, according to its principal, Travis Felts.

“We are strictly adhering to the 2020-2021 Guidelines for Return to Participation and the VHSL Guidelines for Reopening Sports/Activities documents,” Felts said. “We incorporated these documents into our local plan, which was approved by the Franklin City School Board and the Virginia Department of Education.

“The safety plan that we are following is in accordance with guidelines from the governor’s office, Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education.”

Travis said that tryouts for boys and girls basketball, as well as cheerleading, began on Dec. 7. Wrestling was set to start Dec. 14. The school will also participate in the Scholastic Bowl. Felts said that if Franklin qualifies, it would also play in postseason regional and state tournaments. He added that games will be live-streamed on the FHS Facebook page.

“Our number one priority is the safety and health of our students,” Felts said. “Our coaches and administrators have planned extensively and are working tirelessly to implement the plan to make sure we are safely providing opportunities for our students to participate in VHSL athletics and activities.”

For public schools that do intend to compete in winter sports, it will look markedly different.

For sports played indoors, the VHSL said there could be just 25 spectators per field or court, which includes cheerleaders. For outdoor events, spectators are limited to two guests per player, and the total number of spectators cannot be more than 30% of the occupancy load of the certificate of occupancy for the venue.

In Suffolk and in Region 2, which consists of public schools in South Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore and north to James City County, “we will not have spectators at our games for winter sports when we get the opportunity to resume,” Gordon said.

And though the VHSL announced Dec. 10 that it had “strongly advise[d]” athletes to wear masks at all times, whether at practice, during games or on the sidelines, it backed down from that guidance Dec. 13. It noted that Northam’s Dec. 10 executive order “(does) not apply to … individuals exercising or using exercise equipment.”

“VHSL apologizes for any confusion created by its original release,” said VHSL executive director Billy Haun in a statement. “We ask the public to understand that it is the first mission of VHSL to make sure athletics are conducted in a safe and healthy environment, and it was that desire that motivated the original decision.”

In adhering to the guidance from the executive order, the VHSL said that masks “are strongly encouraged, but not required,” and that each school can continue to use discretion as to safety steps within their own athletic programs concerning masks.”

The VHSL’s winter sports season began with practices Dec. 7, with no games starting before Dec. 21, and finishing play Feb. 20. Typical fall sports are slated to start practicing Feb. 4 and compete from March 1 through May 1. Spring sports are to begin April 12, with the first competitions two weeks later and wrapping up June 26.

Private schools

Suffolk Christian Academy’s boys and girls basketball teams began their seasons in mid-November. The boys have started their season 0-5, most recently losing Dec. 10 to New Life Academy, 48-21, while the girls are 0-4, having most recently lost 33-26 to Gateway Christian Dec. 4.

A spokeswoman for Nansemond-Suffolk Academy said practices for its winter sports — varsity swimming, boys and girls basketball and cheerleading — have begun.

“At this time, our focus has been on safety, offering varsity athletics first, followed by junior varsity and middle school athletics,” said NSA spokeswoman Karen Schompert in an email. “We are following sport-specific protocols that have been implemented by the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association and the Tidewater Conference of Independent Schools and are requiring health screenings prior to every practice.”

She said coaches and students are also required to wear masks, citing the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Schompert said by offering winter sports with safety protocols in place, NSA is providing students with an outlet to improve their overall health.

“We are taking the winter season day-by-day and will make decisions daily based on guidance from local health officials and the most recent data available,” Schompert said, “as well as what is in the best interest of the students, faculty and staff.”

Southampton Academy and Isle of Wight Academy, which belong to the Virginia Colonial Conference, have also started their winter sports seasons. Both will compete in varsity boys and girls basketball, while IWA will also compete in indoor track.

Southampton Academy athletic director Dale Marks said the school had its first games against Banner Christian Dec. 8, and that the season will go through the end of January.

There will be no fans — not even parents — permitted into the gymnasiums during play. Instead, the games will be streamed live on the school’s Facebook page.

“Our plan is not to be in the state tournaments, which would be in the third week of February,” said Marks, who explained that to do so would interfere with the volleyball competition during the fall sports schedule. Football and cross country will also be played that season.

Fall sports for Southampton Academy will go from Feb. 1 through March 31.

Isle of Wight Academy headmaster Mark A. Munford said boys and girls basketball will be played between now and January, and the school will compete on an independent basis in indoor track with a few runners.

The fall season will be in February and March, and spring in April and May.

He said there are 10 schools involved in the VCC, and for this season, IWA will play each school just once. Games are to be played on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“Originally, games were to start on Dec. 1, but the decision was made to delay one week due to the potential for outbreaks after the Thanksgiving breaks,” said Munford. “Currently, three schools have opted out of any December games. The remaining seven schools began play on Dec. 8. IWA had an off night.”

The first game for IWA was scheduled for Dec. 11 at Brunswick Academy in Lawrenceville.

Concerning safety precautions, Munford said, “Conference mitigation procedures require frequent sanitizing of balls, bench areas and scorers’ table. All persons in the gym will be health screened before entering the facility. Away teams will temperature check their athletes before departing for games and they will be temperature checked upon arriving.

“There will be no shared equipment, no water or locker rooms provided and separate areas in the stands for each team. Currently, there will be no spectators other than essential personnel, but that will be revisited in January to hopefully allow at least parents.”