The school board for Frederick County Public Schools reached a majority consensus agreeing with the division’s recommendation to delay interscholastic competition until March 1 during its work session on Monday night, with four of the seven board members agreeing with the recommendation.
The plan calls for the winter sports and fall sports seasons to last one month each without participation in the Virginia High School League postseason. Spring sports athletes — who did not participate in a regular-season event last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic — will get the opportunity to participate in the VHSL postseason. It would not be possible to compete in the winter and fall VHSL postseasons because the VHSL winter season would be finished by March 1, and the VHSL fall regular season would be over by the time local teams meet minimum VHSL practice requirements.
James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando are the three FCPS high schools. The dates for the FCPS seasons are March 1-27 for winter sports, March 29-April 24 for fall sports, and April 26-June 16 for spring sports. June 16 is the date of the Region 4C finals. Teams can continue to compete beyond June 16 if they qualify for state competition.
Each of Frederick County’s three high schools will engage in extended cross country and outdoor track seasons rather than compete in indoor track during the winter season.
Schedule information is not available yet.
Board members Jay Foreman, Michael Lake, Shontyá Washington and Frank Wright indicated their approval to the recommendation with a thumbs up, and Brandon Monk, Bradley Comstock and Brian Hester put their thumbs down.
As of Tuesday, 39 of 318 VHSL schools (12.2 percent) are not participating in winter sports during the VHSL season. Four of the eight Class 4 Northwestern District schools and the eight Bull Run District schools, including Clarke County, are participating. Winchester Public Schools (Handley) will discuss the winter sports season this evening.
The VHSL began its winter season on Dec. 7 (it runs through Feb. 20), but on Dec. 1 FCPS made the decision to delay participating until it returned from its winter break this week. (FCPS students have continued to participate in out-of-season workouts that feature conditioning, skill development and distancing on the two days a week that they physically attend school. Workouts have taken place since September, and they will continue to have them.)
FCPS Superintendent David Sovine said during Tuesday’s meeting the past month was used to consult with all of the division’s high school principals and coordinators of student activities, local public health professionals including Lord Fairfax Health Director Dr. Colin Greene, and the school division’s health and safety committee to determine the best course of action going forward.
The rising COVID-19 numbers led FCPS to decide that the best course of action was to continue to delay participation. Sovine noted that on Monday, there were 26 new cases of COVID-19 reported among FCPS students (16) and staff (10). As of 3 p.m. on Tuesday, there were 20 new cases reported involving 14 students and six staff members, and there’s no sign that the school division has reached peak COVID numbers.
While Greene sent an email to district superintendents on Sunday that said “there is little evidence that shows that the virus has spread through sport,” he also expressed his concerns that any activity with close contact could potentially lead to the spread of COVID-19.
Millbrook coordinator of student Scott Mankins pointed out that FCPS can’t control what student-athletes do when they’re away from the athletic arena. Those actions could impact the people around them.
“Our goal throughout this whole thing has been to get the kids back to play,” Mankins said. “We want to do that as safely as possible and as soon as we can get that as safely as possible.
“We want the kids to play. I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for high school athletics. I’ve worked for Frederick County schools for 33 years, and all 33 of those years I’ve been a coach or athletic director. This is the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make. But in addition to caring about our kids, we care about our coaches, and we care about the families of our coaches. We care about our officials, and the families of our officials.”
Sovine stated that a March winter sports start date would get FCPS through the ensuing cold winter months, though there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to avoid the quarantines that have been instituted with other sports programs currently competing in winter sports in the Northwestern District or Lord Fairfax Health District. Sovine said Strasburg boys’ basketball, Central girls’ basketball, Culpeper boys’ basketball, Culpeper wrestling, Brentsville girls’ basketball and Manassas Park JV boys’ basketball are all under quarantine. Multiple people mentioned at Tuesday’s board meeting that Loudoun County programs also have quarantined.
“Health and safety protocols will be adhered to throughout each of the seasons in an effort to keep our students, coaches, officials and any spectators that may be allowed at events safe,” Sovine said. “Although it’s likely we will encounter disruptions to the planned seasons due to COVID-19, we are committed to providing our students with the opportunity to safely engage in athletic competition.”
Sherando coordinator of student activities Jason Barbe said, “we feel this is the plan that gives [FCPS] the best chance to succeed, and also have the least negative impact on keeping Frederick County schools open.”
The hope is that a COVID-19 vaccine will provide a safer environment for the teachers and coaches who will be around those students. Sovine said in his discussions with Greene, the goal is to provide options in middle-to-late January for teachers and coaches to take the vaccine if they want to, with the second cycle possibly occurring in February.
Mankins, one of several members of FCPS athletics who have family members who work for Valley Health, said during Tuesday’s meeting that waiting until March could provide more time for vaccinations and more time for COVID-19 numbers to come down. Mankins said he knows of coaches who did not want to coach because of COVID-19.
Mankins said they’d like to do what they can to avoid quarantines that could derail a season.
“The two-week quarantine actually ends up being a three-week quarantine, because you quarantine for two weeks, you don’t just get back on the court and play again,” Mankins said. “You’re going to have a week to come back, get the kids back in shape, get them back together, so you’re missing three weeks of a condensed season.”
Sovine’s proposal came after the comments section of the meeting, which featured one live speaker and 20 emails advocating for the return of sports for a variety of reasons, including the mental health of athletes.
Mankins noted that there were multiple references to Loudoun County schools in those comments, who are holding sports competition but do not have in-person classes. That’s not what FCPS wants to do.
“One of our goals is to keep schools open,” Mankins said.
Mankins also noted that while travel teams are operating, they’re not necessarily held to the same standards as VHSL schools. Mankins said student-athletes in travel play have had to be quarantined and pulled out of schools because of COVID-19.
Hester expressed appreciation for the hard work FCPS personnel have put in for student-athletes during the pandemic, but disagreed with waiting nearly two months to resurrect sports. Hester said the letter Greene distributed to area superintendents doesn’t guarantee that it will be safer to play sports in the spring.
“If VHSL has put out guidelines, I personally think, and from what my constituents have talked to me about, March 1 is just too late,” Hester said. “My daughter competes on a travel team up and down the East Coast with no issues whatsoever. ... Kids need to play sports. I was a huge sports proponent as a kid. I played four sports, and I know how important it is to the individual, the psyche, everything. ... There are schools within VHSL that are already playing. Yes, it’s a risk. We all realize that it’s a risk. But going to school this year was a risk too and we’ve mitigated it to the best of our abilities.”
Mankins said waiting until March also could provide a better scheduling situation. During Tuesday’s meeting, he said he spoke with the assigner for the Shenandoah Valley Basketball Officials Association on Monday, informing him of the plan that would be presented to the school board. Mankins said if FCPS were to start right now, it might not have basketball officials because of the number of officials who have opted out of participating this winter, and because of their commitments to other schools. (A number of FCPS contests would have had to have been rescheduled because of the delayed start to the winter season.)
Mankins said he’s not sure if they would have wrestling officials this winter either based on conversations with two wrestling officials.
“[Both] wrestling officials said it would be challenging to start right now,” said Mankins in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Could it happen? Probably. But there are officials who have opted out.”
Two FCPS basketball coaches each said they see both sides of the issue.
James Wood boys’ basketball coach Tim Wygant watched Tuesday night’s board meeting. While Tuesday night’s decision was not what he wanted as a coach, he’s also a field service engineer working in analytical chemistry products, and he understands the importance of paying attention to recommendations based on science.
“It’s disappointing from a coaching perspective, especially looking at it from the perspective of some of the seniors,” Wygant said. “We recognize that ultimately, the concern of the school board is student safety, coaches safety, officials safety, and also to maintain a learning environment, first and foremost, for all the schools. But I would be remiss to not say that I was disappointed that we wouldn’t get a longer season. Disappointed that our players would not be able to participate in the postseason.
“If there is something positive with this situation with the increased safety and the reduced risk, they will get some games in March. A bunch of players did get a hold of me last night. They were disappointed, and parents were disappointed. But we have to remain positive and we have to remain vigilant and move forward with what we are able to do.”
Millbrook girls’ basketball coach Erick Green Sr. said while he understands health concerns, he ultimately thinks that if parents are willing to allow their children to play, they should be able to compete.
“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Green said. “The main interest is the kids’ health and safety. But then again, the kids have worked hard, and they want to play. So you kind of feel sorry for them that they’re not given the opportunity to have a regular Virginia High School League season.
“I understand people’s decisions not to play, but I personally believe that parents should be allowed to determine if their kid participates or not in these types of conditions [if the athlete wants to play]. I believe the parents should have input on those decisions, and the school should provide opportunities for the kids to participate in a normal VHSL season, just like the other schools are doing around the area.”
Mankins wanted that to happen. The COVID-19 situation led FCPS to make a tough choice.
“It’s been an extremely difficult period for everybody,” Mankins said Wednesday. “We’ve been working on this since school was out last spring, trying to plan ahead, what’s going to happen, what are we going to be able to do.
“Throughout the whole thing, the winter season was the one everybody thought was going to be the most difficult, not just here locally. With where we are with our local numbers and our local hospital situation ... we weren’t asked to do the easiest thing. We were asked to do the right thing. We think we’ve done that. We didn’t want to cancel seasons.”
FCPS also announced that they are waiving athletic participation fees for the 2020-21 school year because of the condensed nature of the seasons. The cost is $75 per athlete per season under normal circumstances. FCPS had already planned on reducing the fee to $50 when the VHSL’s condensed season plan was announced.
At the present time, FCPS does not plan to allow spectators to attend any indoor athletic events. CSAs previously stated that they plan on using Hudl to stream events online for free. A limited number of spectators will be allowed to attend outdoor events in compliance with the school division’s health and safety plan, any executive orders that are in place at the time the events are held and guidance provided by the local health department.