BRATTLEBORO — In normal times, student-athletes in Vermont would now be participating their initial practices in anticipation of the fall high school sports season.
However, with everything about the course that K-12 education will take in the 2020-21 school year up in the air due to the COVID-19 pandemic, about the only thing that is certain is that schools will be opening later this year, and that the first day of school in Vermont will be Sept. 8.
That date will also mark the first official day of practice for girls' and boys' soccer, field hockey, cross-country running, and football at Windham County's high schools.
“There are still many uncertainties, with the information changing daily,” said Leland & Gray Union High School Athletic Director Marty Testo, who says he plans to speak with his superintendent and principal this week to discuss how the school will move forward.
Brattleboro Union High School Athletic Director Chris Sawyer said that “there's still a lot being finalized but, hopefully, at least JV and varsity teams will be practicing in all fall sports [on Sept. 8] to get ready for games, with the possibility of some intramural offerings.”
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and his pandemic task force worked with the Vermont Principals' Association (VPA), the governing board of interscholastic activities, the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE), and school athletic directors and coaches to come up with a way to allow all fall sports to happen in some capacity.
“This won't be a normal season, but our goal is to offer a path forward for each of these sports to give our kids some sense of normalcy in abnormal times,” Scott said earlier this month.
“We're glad the governor and the AOE is giving us the go-ahead,” said Twin Valley High School Athletic Director Buddy Hayford. “The kids have been cooped up since March, and they're champing at the bit to play again.”
When schools were shut down in Vermont in March, it disrupted the tournaments for the winter sports and wiped out the spring sports season.
The hope is that, as schools reopen, there will be at least some extracurricular activities for students this fall.
Step by step
Right now, the status of schools in Windham County is at Step 2 of the AOE's three-step Strong and Healthy Start guidance. According to the AOE, movement from one step to another will depend on information provided by state agencies.
In Step 1, according to the AOE guidelines, schools “are closed for in-person instruction. Remote learning opportunities should be provided for all students. Support provision of student services, such as school meal programs, [are done] as feasible. No school sponsored athletic activity is permitted.”
Step 2 sees schools open “for in-person instruction with enhanced physical distancing measures and for children who live in the local geographic area only. Athletic teams approved by the state administration may conduct conditioning activities that follow social distancing norms with a recommended minimum of 6 feet between individuals.”
Step 3 is the level where schools “are open for in-person instruction with distancing measures,” with attendance restricted “to those from limited transmission areas (other Step 3 areas) only. Athletic teams approved by the state administration may conduct normal training and interscholastic contests.”
When schools reach Step 3, they will get the go-ahead to start playing other schools in fall sports, most likely starting the week of Sept. 21.
Hayford, who also coaches soccer at Twin Valley, said that barring outbreaks of COVID-19, schools will get to play eight or 10 regular-season games before playoffs start in late October. As of now, the fall sports season is set to end on Nov. 7.
“If we can get to Nov. 7 without any setbacks, that will be quite an accomplishment,” said Hayford.
If a school has to move from step 3 back to step 2 due to illness, the AOE says the decision to continue sports at individual schools would come down to the local superintendent, in consultation with the state Department of Health.
Following the rules
After an online meeting with athletic directors from around the state, the VPA on Aug. 12 issued its guidelines for the 2020 fall season. They can be found at vpaonline.org.
Among the sports that are offered at local schools, cross-country will see the least amount of disruption - mainly, that there'll be no mass starts for runners at meets. Instead, they will be sent out one at a time.
Soccer and field hockey will be slightly different, with no multi-team tournaments allowed.
Football will be the most different, as 11-on-11 full-contact tackle football will be replaced by 7-on-7 touch football with limited physical contact.
While cross-country runners will not have to wear facial coverings, athletes in all other sports will be required to wear them. Coaches in all sports will also have to mask up.
At all events, spectators will be limited to 150 people, with masks and social distancing required.
“Anyone who is on school property has to wear a mask,” said Hayford. “I think everyone will be following the guidelines. We've done so well as a state to keep this virus under control, so I know people will cooperate so we can have a season.”
The VPA will require all athletes, coaches, and contest personnel be screened before any practice or game. This screening includes a temperature check as well as an interview to ask about COVID-19 symptoms and to determine if a person has had close contact with someone who has the virus.
Anyone who has positive symptoms or whose body temperature is higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit will not be allowed to take part in team activities and will be sent home immediately.
A rigorous cleaning and sanitizing regimen will also be required in all locker rooms and training facilities. Social- distancing rules will be enforced, with athletes asked to spend as little time in locker rooms as possible.
“It's going to be a little more difficult for the students, as well as the coaches and the fans, but it definitely beats the alternative of not having activities this school year,” said Hayford.