State officials remain vague on start date for H.S. sports

Vermont high schools, athletes and coaches thought they were days away from competing for the first time since March.

Now they once again don’t know how many days it will be.

During a news conference Friday, Dan French, the state’s Secretary of Education, said his agency was unaware many schools had scheduled games to begin next week after interpreting that the state’s “Strong and Healthy Start” guidance signaled permission would likely be granted the week of Sept. 21.

Under the guidance, all schools must be in the third phase of its three-step plan for sports teams to begin games and competition for the fall season. When teams returned to practice for the first day of school on Sept. 8, the Vermont Principals’ Association said it believed the state had targeted the week of Sept. 21 to transition from Step II to Step III of its plan for contending with the COVID-19 pandemic.

French had informed school superintendents Thursday that the state’s public health decision-makers are not ready to give schools that green light on Monday.

“I think we were very clear all along, but we were optimistic — perhaps that’s our fault of trying to convey that optimism,” French said.

More:Coronavirus: Southern Vermont League cancels opening week of H.S. competition

The VPA’s instructions to schools in August, following the lead set by the Agency of Education, said:

“All Vermont schools will begin the academic year in Step II and the decision to move to Step III will be determined by the Department of Health. It should be anticipated that schools will be in Step II for a minimum of two weeks after school opens for academic instruction.”

The Woodstock girls soccer team goes through drills during the first day of fall practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Woodstock.

The Southern Vermont League had planned to open its season as early as Monday afternoon while the Northern Vermont Athletic Conference had opted to start league play for most sports during the week of Sept. 28.

The first Vermont high school football games of 2020 are slated for Sept. 25-26.

More:Vermont H.S. football: Regional schedules announced for 7-on-7 touch season

But the transition to Step III will affect more than athletics — operations like food service and transportation also stand to change, according to the state’s plan. 

“It’s not just an examination of the conditions, it’s also if schools are comfortable implementing guidance,” French said.

When asked what metrics or conditions are keeping schools from moving to Step III, French did not specify.

“Ultimately our metric of that will be the public health information,” he said. “If school districts are successful in implementing the guidance we’ll see that manifest itself in the broader indicators in society.”

French said his team plans to meet with officials from the Vermont Department of Health next week “to hopefully provide additional clarity” on when to expect the move to Step III. He would not say whether games scheduled for the end of the week are possibly in play.

Vermont’s public schools have reported three cases of COVID-19 in the first two weeks since opening, according to data compiled by the state.

Maleeha Syed contributed reporting to this story.

Contact Alex Abrami at 660-1848 or aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5. Contact Austin Danforth at 651-4851 or edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @eadanforth.

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