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High risk, low risk: VHSL ponders seasons ahead / June 10, 2020

The Virginia High School League said Friday it will soon be developing a plan to reopen athletics and academic activities.

The VHSL’s most recent announcement comes in light of Gov. Ralph Northam’s plans Tuesday to release guidelines for the reopening of K-12 schools.

“The governor will soon be announcing his plans for reopening schools across Virginia. Once those details are released, VHSL staff along with the VHSL Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) will review the Governor’s guidelines and develop a plan to reopen athletics and academic activities that are not in conflict with his plan,” Mike McCall, VHSL’s communications director said.

Student-athletes, potential athletes, coaches, umpires and refs, parents, fans and others involved are anxious to see what will be required to get back on the playing fields and courts, once school resumes. VHSL Executive Director John W. “Billy” Haun said he understands their concerns.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haun said, he has wanted to see student-athletes return to sports but only when it was safe to do so. He’s also made the point consistently that whatever the VHSL does, it will be in accord with the state’s guidelines to reopen schools.

“We will take that plan and align it with the work our SMAC committee has done, share those for approval with our executive committee and then provide those guidelines to school divisions as they develop their own plans for reopening athletics,” Haun said. “We know people are anxious and want to know when athletic activities will begin. I want to assure everyone that we will move as quickly as possible to put a plan in place.”

Yet, what the VHSL will release is only guidelines. With COVID-19 still seemingly dictating much with everyday activity, individual schools will also have to make some tough choices.

Will Bluestone or Park View have different rules than other schools in the James River District or Tri-Rivers District, respectively, related to safety and health measures? Will districts and regions set a base standard for all member schools to meet? There are multiple other questions that will have to be answered.

Social distancing has been a mainstay in helping to prevent the spread of the virus. The Washington Post, Bloomberg News as well as other major media outlets have been reporting that this one action possibly prevented over 60 million infections from occurring in U.S., coupled with millions of lives possibly being saved.

The National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) has structured its plan in three phases. The organization has classified sports as high, moderate, and low risk.

Here’s how the VHSL ranks sports in regard to the coronavirus.

Higher Risk: Sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.

Moderate Risk: Sports that involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants OR intermittent close contact OR group sports OR sports that use equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants.

Lower Risk: Sports that can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors.

If one looks at the higher risk sports — wrestling, football, basketball, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer, and dance — football is generally the powerhouse program at high schools or colleges. With the distancing guidelines and other safety guidelines currently in place, football games would be nearly impossible to play under current standards. However, as more data is collected on COVID-19, this could change.

Volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball, gymnastics, tennis, pole vault, high jump, and the long jump are all moderate risk sports, along with some others, but could be categorized lower risk with appropriate cleaning of equipment and use of masks by participants.

Lower risk sports include sports that could be done with relative ease on distancing — golf, most track and field events, individual swimming and the like.

One component of sports programs that Bluestone and Park View are fortunate enough to have are athletic trainers. The NFHS guidelines address many issues but one prominent topic is whether schools have athletic trainers. While an AT may have been seen as a luxury by some schools, the national organization urges member schools to fill the position.

Bluestone’s certified athletic trainer is Amirah Muhammad. Park View was seeking a certified AT last year. Neighboring Halifax County has as its high school athletic trainer Breanna Dufour.

“Given the coming financial crisis at the state and local levels, the NFHS SMAC (Sports Medicine Advisory Committee) fears that athletic trainer positions will be seen as a ‘luxury’ and those positions will be at risk during the budgeting process. It is also assumed that athletic trainers supplied to high schools by hospitals and sports medicine clinics are also at risk as many medical clinics and hospitals have suffered severe revenue loss during the pandemic,” the NFHS states.

“Athletic trainers in high schools are positioned to play a vital role as sports return following this pandemic. As health-care professionals, they can take lead roles in developing and implementing infection control policy throughout the school. Whenever needed, state associations and their SMACs should promote the importance of athletic trainers in high schools and their role in injury evaluation, treatment and risk minimization as well as being a vital component of any return-to-school and athletics plan.”

The NFHS also a three-tier standard for student-athletes, coaches and those associated with practice to follow. In the first tier, the taking of temperatures and evaluating signs of the coronavirus are mandatory before practice even begins. These duties are best left to an AT if possible.

ATs already monitor participants before, during, and at the close of practice and games. Being members of the health care community, ATs are in a better position to take of medical issues.

Muhammad and Dufour each see the importance of having an AT in high schools. Both say ATs can help student-athletes when they get injured and possibly help prevent an injury or illness.

“It helps to look at the physical before [players] get started because some people might try to slip through the cracks,” Muhammad said. “Let’s just say a kid has a heart murmur. During the physical, well, that doctor is not going to clear them, they’re going to refer them to a cardiologist for further evaluation; I have to know those things. Especially if a child goes down, I at least know what could possibly be going on with them. So, allergies, asthma, all that stuff I need to know.”

HCHS’s Dufour expressed that athletic trainers can have a positive effect on the school’s sports programs as well as the community at large.

“I understand that many schools cannot afford onsite healthcare professionals. But there are ways around this,” she said. Some schools will contract an AT, or even EMT, to provide temporary coverage for coverage at games of high-risk sports. This still supports the team with emergency care in case a catastrophic injury occurs.

“However, having an onsite, full time athletic trainer can help cut down on healthcare costs in the community. Athletic trainers are educated on various diagnostic and treatment methods that can put off trips to physicians or decrease long-term rehabilitations. Also, because they are onsite, athletic trainers are more accessible to the athletes and provide immediate suggestions, rehab and/or taping/bracing that can help the athlete return to play sooner.

“Sports programs have gone without athletic trainers. But those that have them, see a difference.”

In August 2015, then-Bluestone athletic director Ed Crowder implored the School Board to hire an athletic trainers for Bluestone. The request came approximately 10 months after the death of Jamond Salley.

Salley was a standout student-athlete at Park View High School who died playing football as the result of blunt force trauma. The Dragons were playing Brunswick County in Lawrenceville when Salley lost consciousness during halftime and succumbed to his injuries.

Crowder said at the time he had been informed that the three rescue organizations on the western end of Mecklenburg would no longer be able to provide coverage during ball games, just one of several compelling reason for schools to have athletic trainers.

“Coaches are not encouraged to administer first aid, and the need for athletic trainers has been pushed to the forefront,” Crowder told trustees at the time. “Where we as coaches go to watch or coach a ball game, the athletic trainer is there to recognize symptoms and problems, to remove a player from a ball game or do what they can to put the player back in quickly. They [the athletic trainer] are studying athletes for their well-being.”

The school board would later hire an athletic trainer for each high school.

Sports Coverage

See complete sports coverage for Halifax and Mecklenburg counties.