The landscape of high school athletics changed last Thursday when the Virginia High School League was forced to cancel four classifications of state basketball championships because of coronavirus (COVID-19).
A day later, Dr. James Lane, superintendent of Public Instruction for Virginia Public Schools, announced the closure of schools for at least two weeks, which pushed back the start of the VHSL spring sports season until at least April.
“This situation is unprecedented,” Virginia High School League executive director John W. “Billy” Haun said. “This is a pandemic virus that has the potential to affect every citizen of our country. I can’t remember a time when all K-12 schools in Virginia were ordered to close for a minimum of two weeks.”
Haun understands the severity of this issue. He spent two decades in school administration, including serving as principal at Monticello High School and as an assistant superintendent for student learning in Albemarle County. In addition, he coached high school football for 17 seasons.
Last Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a State of Emergency for Virginia, which forced the VHSL to cancel the final two days of the boys and girls state basketball championships at VCU’s Siegel Center in Richmond.
Haun said the VHSL monitored information from the Centers for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health and were satisfied games could be played as scheduled as of last Wednesday evening.
Less than 12 hours later, after several new developments, the VHSL elected to play Thursday’s games as scheduled and to limit attendance for the final two games of the tournament to teams, school administrators and immediate family members.
Plans changed again that afternoon after Northam’s announcement.
“Once the Governor issued a state of emergency, the responsible decision to be made at that point to help protect the safety of everyone involved was to cancel the remaining games scheduled,” Haun said.
Last Friday, the Department of Education shut down all public schools from March 16-27. The VHSL followed quickly and pushed back the spring sports season, which was slated to start Monday, and cancelled all practices.
“The last four or five days have been difficult for everyone in this country,” Haun said. “Information and circumstances have changed rapidly. When possible, we’ve tried to collaborate with folks and make decisions with the information that is available, while trying to remain flexible knowing that it is a fluid situation and that information is going to continue to change.”
Games could be pushed back even further now or cancelled altogether. Over the weekend, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its initial briefing that closing schools for eight weeks or more could have a great impact on mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.
If that were the cause, that would delay spring high school sports from starting until May. That would mean at best a condensed spring sports schedule and possibly a cancellation of them altogether.
“I am not sure what will happen in the next two to eight weeks with our public schools,” Haun said, “but we will try every way possible to have some type of spring sports season and championships, if possible.”
Haun said the VHSL is committed to having a spring sports season for its 317 member schools.
“All of these decisions will be made based on when schools reopen,” Haun said. “Once, or if, the Governor allows schools to reopen, local school boards could make decisions to stay closed longer. How to handle school activities and school travel. This may be very different in geographic areas of the commonwealth. District and regions will have input into what decisions will be made about spring sports seasons and state championships.”
Haun maintains that student safety is a top priority for the VHSL and every school division. He also understands the role athletics and activities play in a school.
“I feel that athletics and activities are an important part of the process,” Haun said. “I know many people have worked really hard and sacrificed many hours, months, and in some cases years, in preparation for this season. For seniors, it’s their last opportunity. We want the student-athletes in our member schools to have an opportunity to participate this spring, if possible.”
The VHSL executive director believes these events could also help bring communities together.
“High school activities, athletics and activities, are a big part of our high schools and school communities,” Haun said. “In a very difficult time, spring sports and championships could help schools finish a difficult school year with some sort of closure and return some level of normality back to our communities.”