WINCHESTER — Handley High School has been given the green light to participate in the Virginia High School League winter sports season as a result of a 6-1 vote by the Winchester School Board in a special meeting held Thursday night at John Kerr Elementary School.
Permitting Handley to compete in the VHSL winter sports season immediately was the first of four options presented by the WPS Return to Play Committee on Thursday. Choice No. 1 was voted for by the board with the caveat that all students participating in high contact sports for the winter and fall seasons opt into 100 percent distance learning. The board will eventually reconvene in closed session to discuss special circumstances as needed.
Handley’s winter sports are basketball, wrestling, swimming and indoor track & field. Basketball and wrestling are the two contact sports. Football is the only contact sport among fall sports. The VHSL is permitting football teams to begin practicing on Feb. 4.
The vaccination process for educators and coaches — which will start later this month — will not be complete by Feb. 4, which is why football players will be a part of the 100 percent distance learning. Handley students currently attend school in person twice per week.
“I’m excited for the kids,” said Handley director of student activities Reed Prosser after Thursday’s meeting, which lasted more than three hours. “We’ve worked long and hard to come together as a group and a committee. At this point, it’s nice at this point to have a resolution.”
Those who voted for Choice 1 were Mike Birchenough, Carmen Crawford, Marie Imoh, Bryan Pearce-Gonzales, Erica Truban and Elyus Wallace. Karen Anderson Holman voted against it.
During the meeting, Prosser commended the current and former Handley athletes who presented their cases for why Handley should start participating in official VHSL competition immediately.
The public comments section of the meeting featured more than 70 minutes of people advocating for athletic participation, including 10 current and former athletes who spoke in person. Overall, there were 14 people in person and 21 people through email who asked for immediate VHSL participation for Handley.
Thursday’s meeting was held as a result of action taken by WPS on Dec. 2, when it was announced that it was postponing the winter sports season until the first full week of January due to COVID-19 concerns. The VHSL winter sports season began with basketball practice on Dec. 7 and wrestling, swimming and indoor track practice on Dec. 14. The VHSL calendar calls for all four seasons to be completed by Feb. 20. The deadline to complete regional play ranges from Feb. 6-13 for those sports.
Handley has held non-contact workouts throughout the school year and continued to hold non-contact workouts despite not joining the VHSL winter sports season on Dec. 7. Choice 1 was presented with the understanding that Handley’s workouts would count toward the eight-practice minimum that is required by the VHSL prior to competing in an interscholastic sports event for each of the aforementioned winter sports. However, tryouts still need to be held and there are no details yet as to when Handley winter sports teams will have their first competitions.
Choice 2 was the plan that was recommended by the Return to Play Committee. It involved delaying the winter sports season until March 1. The rationale was that COVID-19 cases might decrease by then; the coming vaccinations would protect educators, coaches and people whose health conditions put them at greater risk for COVID-19; and the season would be less likely to be disrupted due to potential required quarantining practices.
A delay to winter sports would have prevented Handley from competing in the VHSL winter postseason and would have involved competing against local Virginia schools and possibly West Virginia schools. On Tuesday, Frederick County voted to postpone winter sports competition until March 1. West Virginia will not compete in winter sports before March 1.
By electing to participate in winter sports immediately, Handley will compete in a five-school Class 4 Northwestern District. The three Fauquier County schools (Fauquier, Kettle Run and Liberty) and Culpeper County are the other participating schools.
Earlier this week, Bull Run District member Clarke County chose to go ahead with winter sports, in part because of data supplied by Dr. Colin Greene, the director of the Lord Fairfax Health District that also includes Winchester. While Greene reiterated his concerns that any activity with close contact could potentially lead to the spread of COVID-19, his data indicates there is little evidence that shows that the virus has spread through sport competition in the district.
Wallace was the first board member to make a strong push for consideration of Choice 1, with his remarks drawing loud applause.
Wallace said the WPS board had a tough decision to make, because student-athletes are at risk of contracting a disease of which the long-term effects are unknown. But he invited students to talk to him, and those conversations made him realize that all of Handley’s athletes deserve a chance to not just compete, but to do so with a postseason.
“These kids have worked so hard, so much fire is in them,” he said. “It’s not just about playing the game, it’s more about playing and having a chance to represent their city, theirselves, at the state level. ... Some of these kids have a chance to be considered All-State, All-Region.
“Some of them are seniors, and this is all they’ve got. I can only reflect on the time in my senior year that I got to become an all-state nose guard for this city. ... We’ve asked these kids to come back to school and be students. They’re asking us to let them be athletes. They know the risks. They’ve told me that they will keep their friends and teammates honest. They just want to compete at the bigger level. They don’t want to see Frederick County. They want to see the best in Loudoun, the best Fauquier has. I’m going to be honest with you. I’m for that.”
Choice 3 resembled Frederick County’s plan, which calls for delays to the winter and fall sports seasons, each of which last one month and feature no VHSL postseason competition for those seasons. Choice 4 called for canceling winter sports.
After all four choices were presented to the board, Truban wanted to make sure that Choice 1 would allow each of Handley’s winter sports teams to practice and compete. The documents that accompanied the presentation noted that indoor track and swimming will each face unique circumstances.
Handley practices and competes in meets at Jim Barnett Park’s War Memorial Building. Currently, Jim Barnett Park only allows 12 people in the pool at a time due its COVID-19 mitigation policies. But Handley has not practiced every day in the pool in prior years due to the heavy interest from the Winchester-Frederick County community to use the facility. In a phone interview on Thursday before the board meeting, Handley coach Tag Grove said he has 35 boys and girls combined.
As far as hosting a competition at Jim Barnett, that may not be possible, but Prosser noted that there are facilities in Loudoun County that are hosting events.
Indoor track always practices outdoors every year. As far as competition, the indoor track season typically features outdoor meets every year. Shenandoah University, which has an indoor track facility is returning to competition this semester. (The Hornets indoor track team has its first meet on Jan. 16 at the Virginia Military Institute.) But as of Thursday Prosser did not know if SU was renting out its facility.
Multiple board members stated their concerns about what might happen in terms of COVID-19 case numbers if Handley were to begin competing in the VHSL sports seasons.
Crawford noted that COVID-19 numbers have risen because of people gathering together for holidays. She also shared that one of her son’s friends was a high school counselor and basketball coach who died in April from COVID-19.
“You all spoke very well about why you want to play, and the mental health aspect,” said Crawford, referring to the student-athletes who spoke before the board. “We all want to be safe. Our teachers, our coaches, [we want them safe]. We need our parents to step up and tell your child, ‘You cannot go to a party. You’re playing sports. You cannot do this.’ We have to hold parents accountable.”
Though Handley personnel can’t control what happens with their students when they’re away from school or the athletic arena, Prosser said during the meeting that he feels athletes have done what they can to try and stay safe, because they want to play.
“I think our athletes have been conscientious,” Prosser said. “If they weren’t conscientious, we would not have been able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished so far. I feel confident in our ability to trust [the athletes] in that regard.
“But the reality is, I don’t know if they’re going to a party or not. I don’t know if they’re hanging out with their friends. That’s just the reality. But that can be said for all our students.”
Truban said one of her concerns with Choice 1 was what it would mean to the school community as a whole. She stated that WPS wants to keep all of its schools open because education is the top priority, and the division has worked considerably hard to do so. She pointed out that six weeks ago, WPS shut down in-person schooling for nearly two weeks because of rising COVID-19 numbers.
Truban expressed concerns for students who need to be in school, like special education students; students who don’t have an appropriate environment at home to learn because of things like noise and limited-to-no Internet access; and 4-7-year-olds, who can benefit more than older students from in-person schooling and who recently began four days a week of in-person schooling.
As a result of all that, Truban suggested the possibility of 100 percent distance learning for athletes, because a positive COVID-19 case would result in quarantining not just the athlete and their teammates, but also the students they go to class with and teachers who instruct that athlete. Truban said she didn’t want another situation where WPS has 100 percent virtual instruction again.
Birchenough said he was in favor of Choice 1 in part because there’s no guarantee that conditions will be safer to play in March.
“I feel like we’re just standing on a diving board right now,” he said. “Sooner or later you have to jump in.”
Holman expressed her understanding of why athletes want so badly to compete, and noted that athletics keeps students more motivated to do well academically.
But Holman noted that as of Wednesday, WPS had nine active student COVID-19 cases and 70 students in active quarantine, and 15 active staff cases, with 12 staff members in active quarantine. She noted that the city of Winchester’s cases since mid-November have been consistently higher than in the three months prior to that. Out of concern for not just the students but the people they come in contact with, Holman said she wanted to vote for Choice 2 and delay the winter season to March 1.
There were numerous smiles among athletes at the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting. Wrestlers Cam Gordon and Caleb Slack both didn’t hesitate when asked if they would do 100 percent distance learning, because it means they get to wrestle now.
As the board members said, the athletes made a strong impression in stating what athletics means to them from physical, emotional and mental standpoints.
“It’s amazing we could come to this conclusion, to bring sports back and also think about other needs for other people,” said Gordon, who placed third at the Class 4 state tournament at 106 pounds last year. “We can get to wrestle in this VHSL tournament, and I really wanted to be a part of it.”
“I really have a lot of hope for this season, for myself and my team,” Slack said. “We’ve got a lot of talent this year. I’m just really glad they let us have this opportunity.”
First-year Handley boys’ basketball coach Zach Harrell is glad his players will get an opportunity to compete.
“Our staff is extremely excited, and most importantly, our kids are extremely excited,” Harrell said. “For the past six months, we have put in place very strict mitigation protocols that have kept our kids safe. They’ve bought into those protocols and standards. They’ve worked hard at those, and now they’ve been rewarded with the ability to play.
“The biggest concern I had safety-wise was if we did not play, I was very fearful that our guys would go and participate in AAU and club leagues, and I was very fearful that those protocols were not as mindful as ours are at the school. I feel a lot better about their safety and welfare knowing that they’re playing for us versus playing for someone else.”
Other points that were addressed at Thursday’s meeting were that if one athlete on a team tests positive for COVID-19, the entire team would have to quarantine, likely for a period of two weeks. As of now, spectators will not be allowed at competitions for indoor winter sports. No official details have been released on Internet streaming for games.
The Return to Play Committee consists of WPS Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum, Director of Student Services Judy McKiernan, Prosser, and Handley principal Shahrazad Kablan, assistant DSA Kristen Darlington and athletic trainer Bart Stewart.