While the Vermont Principals’ Association awaits state-level approval on its proposal for high school sports to return during a health crisis, the decision to delay the start of the fall season was met with public outcry in some corners.
Most comments on the Free Press’ Varsity Insider Facebook group questioned the VPA’s move to hold off preseason until at least the start of the school year in late August or early September.
And a petition on change.org, which had gained nearly 1,200 signatures as of Tuesday evening, calls for fall sports to begin as scheduled on Aug. 10.
The general consensus from detractors? Let the kids play.
“I know there has been this backlash from people,” VPA Associate Executive Director Bob Johnson said. “But if even one student came down with the coronavirus because of exposure of sports and a school not taking enough steps, that would be a disaster.
“People are frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, we understand that.”
The VPA announced late last week, based on recommendations from the Activities Standards Committee and its COVID-19 task force, to push back the fall season. Its proposal needs to be cleared by the Vermont Agency of Education and Gov. Phil Scott, according to Johnson.
School vs. summer sports
On July 1, competition returned to Vermont for the first time since COVID-19 hit with full force in March, shuttering sports nationwide.
Under guidance from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, sports that weren’t considered high-contact could play games and hold events for youth and recreation leagues.
Of the VPA’s fall offerings, only football cannot conduct full practices or games, per the ACCD’s current guidance.
If sports such as soccer and baseball, played with specific guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19, have state clearance, why can’t high schools begin preseason practices on their usual date in August?
The answer, via Johnson, is a simple one.
“Schools are in a different category, we respond to the Secretary of Education,” Johnson said. “When we talk about going back to school, we’re talking about not only the school team but the school environment those students have to be in all day long. That’s much more in-depth than just going to a practice or playing a game for your local (summer) team.”
Having athletes and coaches return weeks before in-person learning resumes would’ve created unnecessary risks and pressure.
“Let’s say we did come back on Aug. 10. That puts all the responsibility for doing whatever testing and screening on to coaches and individual schools before the general student population comes back in,” Johnson said. “And nobody wanted that.”
VPA planning on fall season
As Johnson said in his interview with WCAX-TV in late June, the VPA’s proposal to state officials includes a plan to have a fall season. Even if it’s only two-thirds of a team’s season.
“Everyone agrees: We want to see the students out there, we want to see them playing. There is no doubt about that,” Johnson said.
“But we have to make sure everyone is as safe as possible.”
At the same time, the uncertainty surrounding the virus makes forecasting almost impossible for administrators like Johnson.
“What a lot of people don’t understand, this is an unprecedented pandemic. We don’t have anything to fall back on,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a clue what it’s going to look like a month from now.”
The unknowns, though, can led to speculation and confusion. At the Rockingham School Board meeting on Monday night, Chris Pratt, superintendent of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, said from his understanding there would be no football or basketball this year.
Such a statement is premature, Johnson said.
“There are a lot of concerns if we can put steps in place to safely play football, and we don’t have the answer for that yet,” Johnson said. “As of right now, nothing is canceled.”
Johnson did say the VPA wouldn’t flip-flop seasons based on a sport’s level of contact. For example, baseball, a spring sport, wouldn’t move to the fall.
“We are trying to bring sports back and play as many sports as we can,” Johnson said. “But the ultimate, bottom-line concern is the safety of the student.”
Become a member of the Vermont Varsity Insider Facebook group at https://bit.ly/2MGSfvX.
This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a subscription to the Burlington Free Press.