Essex High School (EHS) Director of Athletics Patrick Merriam spent some time talking with the Reporter this week and gave some clarification to how fall sports will look this year.
Most of what his department is planning for is in line with guidance from the Vermont Principals’ Association which is widely utilizing guidance from the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE), Vermont Department of Health (DOH), Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
Timeline and Schedules
While there are still a lot of unknowns and some things that need to change in order for schools to play against one another, one thing is clear: it won’t be before Sept. 18.
High school athletics throughout the state cannot start practicing until the first day of academic instruction, Sept. 8. The VPA requires teams to conduct 10 coach-led practice sessions before being able to compete against other schools with only one practice being permitted each day; it also recommends that “schools do not in any way sanction, encourage, or condone ‘Captain’s Practices’ Teams should not practice without a member of the school’s coaching staff present,” according to a guidance document shared by Merriam.
However, teams might need to wait a little longer than the 18th to start the regular season. The VPA is permitting varying levels of participation based on which “step” a school or district is in:
Step I involves there being no in-person instruction and school buildings being closed. If the state or a specific school moves into this step, no school-sponsored athletic activity will be allowed.
Step II, which all Vermont schools will be in on Sept. 8, includes in-person instruction with advanced physical distancing. During this step, teams approved by the state administration can conduct conditioning activities provided that participants remain six feet from one another. They can also hold intra-squad competition -- that being a contest between “teams” within the school’s same program.
Step III also has in-person instruction while using less-intensive distancing measures. This step is when teams are permitted to hold contests with other schools, and it will be at the discretion of the DOH to determine when schools can enter into the designation.
The AOE says it should be anticipated that schools will be in Step II for at least two weeks following the start of academic instruction.
Merriam said he’s heard of schools and districts varying on when they are allowing practices to occur. For example, some other Chittenden County programs are not permitting athletic activity on the remote Wednesdays or weekends while the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union will be practicing each day despite starting the school year on a fully-remote basis. For Essex, Merriam is letting each team determine how it wants to schedule activity.
Merriam also noted that the league Essex is in, the Northern Vermont Athletic Conference, has decided not to schedule any league events until the week of Sept. 28.
Competition and Spectator Size Restrictions
Following state guidance for outdoor events, no more than 150 participants can be involved in any contest or meet. This means for sports such as cross country, facilitators may need to stagger start times and have different groups taking part at different times throughout a day.
Additionally, no more than 150 fans will be able to attend any given event. That figure does not include athletes, coaches, game staff, and officials. Merriam said he’s working on how to facilitate that -- taking into consideration a preference to “tickets” being available to fellow students or families. He added that he’s going to be working with the facilities department to create points of delineation to physically mark where the 150 will be dictated; this will allow for a distinction between fans of a soccer and field hockey game, for example, if they’re playing simultaneously next to one another, or if a fan wants to watch from afar.
Additional Significant Changes
Since Essex is not allowing its gymnasiums to be used at all, even for physical education classes, volleyball will be played outdoors this fall on grass or turf surfaces. Merriam said he’s been able to get access to five outdoor courts with net systems, so he will not have to do much in the way of staggering practice times for the six teams in the district.
Football is only going to be allowing 7-on-7 touch competition this fall. Merriam said the Vermont Interscholastic Football League is working on reworking the schedule to create “travel groups” within different regions of the state to help keep opponents closer to one another and help with potential transportation limits.
The number of meets required to qualify for the state championship has been reduced from four to three.
For this year, golfers’ scores from practices will be allowed to be used as qualification for state tournaments due to the short time frame between the start of the season and the deadline to register.
Facial coverings will be required by athletes, team and game staff, and spectators. The only exception will be that cross country runners will not need to wear them, and participants in golf and bass fishing will be allowed to remove their coverings when able to physically distance.
At this time, the NFHS does not permit the use of plastic shields covering the entire face or being attached to helmets during competition, and they’re not recommended for use during practice.
In field hockey, eye protection is recommended but not required -- that being a recent NFHS rules change.
Guidelines for school-based winter sports programs is anticipated to be published by Oct. 15.