A day after Gov. Ralph Northam eased some restrictions on recreational sports, allowing high school athletics to resume in December, the Virginia High School League on Friday released its return-to-play guidelines.
The amendments made by Northam were to his executive order on temporary restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Under the amendments:
- Indoor and outdoor recreational sports are permitted as long as the total number of attendees doesn’t exceed the lesser of 250 people or 50% of the venue’s occupancy load.
- Races or marathons can have up to 1,000 participants, provided that staggered starts separate runners into groups of 250 or less.
- Screenings of coaches, officials, staff and players for COVID-19 are required before admission to a venue.
Earlier guidance said participants in any sport should maintain 10 feet of physical distance where practicable. That is not in the amended order, although the state’s Phase Three guidelines recommend that at least 6 feet of distance should be maintained for most settings.
Among the guidelines, there “should be no hugging, high-fives, handshakes or fist bumps,” and pregame and postgame handshakes are eliminated.
Some sports will have modifications.
Basketball will not have jump balls, with the visiting team getting the first possession of the game.
In boys lacrosse, there won’t be face-offs — a coin toss will determine possession to begin the game — and body contact/checks are illegal. In girls lacrosse, there won’t be draws; the visiting team gets first possession, with alternating possessions thereafter.
Wrestling is considered a higher-risk sport by the National Federation of State High School Associations. The VHSL guidelines do not limit contact but recommend, among other things, that in practice wrestlers should be paired in pods of four and should be exposed to only one teammate in the pod; the pod should remain the same for a minimum of two weeks; and schools should take mandatory breaks every 10 minutes to allow wrestlers to sanitize their hands.
The complete list of guidelines are on the VHSL’s website, www.vhsl.org.
The state has been under Phase Three guidelines since July 1. The VHSL said during the summer that some of those restrictions would need to be loosened before higher-risk sports, such as football, could be played by the state’s public schools.
The Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association plans to release its safety protocols for winter sports on Nov. 6.
Earlier this week, VHSL executive director Billy Haun gave an inkling the change was coming when he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the league was on track to begin practicing and playing games after submitting guidelines to the governor’s office and the state Department of Health.
Winter sports are scheduled to start practice Dec. 7-14 and start playing games Dec. 21-Jan. 6, according to the revised format approved in September by the VHSL’s executive committee.
Fall sports, which were pushed back because of the pandemic, are scheduled to start practice in February and run through May 1. Spring sports are scheduled to start practice in mid-April and run through late June.
“This amendment by the Governor clears the way for all of our sports to play,” Haun said in a news release. “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. Additionally, we appreciate the close collaboration and guidance from the Governor’s office, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).”
Haun said earlier this week that decisions on whether or not to play will be up to local school divisions. The state’s 132 divisions are operating in various ways — fully remote, in person, partially in person, hybrid, or partially hybrid — according to the state Department of Education.
“We intend to play high school sports,” Henrico County schools spokesperson Andy Jenks said in an email. “Over the course of the next month, we will make sure that we have met all VHSL guidelines to practice and play.”
Chesterfield County schools spokesperson Tim Bullis said in an email that the county school system’s plan “is to review these new VHSL guidelines and the VDOE/VDH information with our local risk management team to see what can be adapted at each school site with our existing programs. In the meantime, our high schools have had active voluntary conditioning sessions that started in September, and we will follow the existing VHSL protocols for out-of-season conditioning until the projected VHSL opening dates in December changes the format.”
Spokespersons for Hanover County schools and Richmond schools said their school systems were evaluating the VHSL's guidance but had not made a decision.
“Keeping our student-athletes safe is critical during this pandemic,” Northam said in the VHSL’s news release. “I know I join many parents in looking forward to the safe return of school sports. VHSL 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.”
The VHSL’s 39-page document was assembled after looking at information from medical committees, the Department of Health, individual sports, the NCAA, coaches, advisory committees, and schools.
The document says the guidelines are “meant to decrease potential exposure to respiratory droplets by encouraging social distancing, limiting participation in administrative tasks to essential personnel and allowing for appropriate protective equipment. Recommendations include cleaning and disinfecting; mask protocols; transportation; and how to run activities safely for individual sports and activities.”
If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the guidelines say “schools must follow their safety plan as well as adhere to Virginia and local Department of Health guidelines in determining a comprehensive plan of action.”
Henrico High School boys basketball coach Vance Harmon said it was “exciting news that we are starting the return-to-play process.”
“The VHSL is taking every imaginary precaution to ensure the safety of all participants,” he said. “I’m grateful that the student-athletes are getting a small taste of normalcy.”
Cosby High School football coach Pete Mutascio called it “a great step forward” and said coaches and athletic directors “will now have to see how these guidelines can be met.”
Highland Springs High School girls basketball coach Franklin Harris said he’s just looking forward to having games.
“Great for the players,” he said. “Any recommendations we have to deal with, no big deal. What everyone has gone through this year, how we sit, wearing a mask, cleaning, it’s a little bump in the road. They are getting to play, and those still being looked at by colleges can be seen. Don’t look for the negative. It’s time to be positive, and if we are, it will work.”