VHSL announces Phase II guidelines for the beginning of fall sports practices

Working in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Virginia Department of Education (DOE), the VHSL Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) has developed a list of recommended guidelines for school divisions as they prepare for the safe reopening of high school sports and activities.

“These VHSL guidelines are recommended for use as school divisions develop their own specific requirements for the Phase II COVID Mitigation Health Plans for Public Schools,” said VHSL Executive Director Dr. John W. “Billy” Haun. “SMAC worked closely with VDH to ensure that these recommended guidelines will offer guidance to local school divisions and superintendents reopening plans. Our SMAC committee of leading health experts has put together an invaluable tool to assist our school divisions in developing those plans.”

Fall sports are just a couple months away from their scheduled opening. Golf actually begins in early August and it will be the easiest sport for safe participation. The only recommendation from the VHSL is for the golfers to maintain appropriate physical distancing, a suggested 10 feet apart.

Golf is listed as a sport with “lower infection risk,” as is cross country. Cross country runners should maintain at least 10 feet of distancing between individuals with no grouping at the start and finish of the practices or races.

Volleyball is listed as a “moderate infection risk” activity. Allowed practice activities include conditioning and individual ball handling drills with each player having her own ball. A player should not use a volleyball that others touch or hit in any manner.

Football is one of four “high infection risk” activities, along with wrestling, lacrosse and competitive cheering. However, football is the only fall sport in the group so that would be the first to be addressed as far as practices for a season that would normally open at the end of August.

Conditioning and individual drills are allowed, but a player should not participate in drills with a football that will be handed off or passed to other teammates. Contact with other players is not allowed and there should be no sharing of tackling dummies, donuts, sleds or other team drill related items normally used for practice. Protective equipment, like helmets and pads, is prohibited.

Limited testing availability, lack of resources for contact tracing, and expanding knowledge of COVID-19 transmission could all result in significant changes to this guidance. Restrictions will be loosened once the state goes into Phase III, but when that will be is yet to be determined.

The VHSL adds that administrators and coaches must emphasize the need for all coaches and participants who have signs or symptoms of illness to stay home when ill to decrease risk of viral transmission.

Currently, the 2019-20 VHSL Physical Form expires on June 30, 2020. Therefore, any student-athlete must obtain a physical prior to any athletic participation moving forward dated after May 1, 2020. PPE’s are an important way to screen student-athletes for conditions that may expose them to risk of injury, illness, or death due to athletic activity. The VHSL requires annual pre-participation exams prior to any athletic activity.

Current pre-season conditioning and acclimatization models assume that athletes have deconditioned during the stay at home orders. The current pandemic may result in students being deconditioned for several months. The intensity and duration of training should be moderated upon return. The NFHS is currently involved with several organizations in developing consensus guidelines for the resumption of workouts and practices.

Also, due to the possibility of recurrent outbreaks in the coming months, schools must be prepared for periodic school closures and the possibility of some teams having to isolate for two or more weeks while in season. Development of policies is recommended regarding practice and/or competition during temporary school closures, the cancellation of contests during the regular season, and parameters for the cancellation or premature ending to postseason events/competitions.

Phases are in accordance with guidelines published by the Commonwealth of Virginia and are subject to change. Please note that counties must meet “gating” criteria to establish Phase One and that further criteria must be met to advance from one phase to the next. These criteria will be determined by the Governor’s Office and/or VDH/VDOE and should be strictly followed.

“At this point we have no idea when we will enter Phase III,” said Haun. “It would not be reasonable to prepare a fall schedule for each sport and activity without knowing the parameters and possible restrictions.”

The VHSL Executive Committee will meet in special session Thursday, June 25 to discuss the reopening of schools under the Governor’s “Return to School” plan and those options relating to fall sports and academic activities.  The executive committee cannot create and release a working fall schedule and calendar for sports and activities until further guidelines are released.

“It’s important to note that if nothing changes before Thursday, definitive answers on Fall sports will be determined later. The Governor’s ‘Return to School Plan’ outlines an action plan for Phase I, II, and III but has no specific guidelines for athletics and extracurricular activities,” said Haun.  “The executive committee will discuss at length the challenges, including health, safety, and financial considerations, that would have to be resolved before implementing any schedule options for a fall sports season.”

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