In what continues to be a controversial stance, Montgomery County schools will not allow winter athletics (basketball, wrestling, swimming and cheer) to begin for another week.
At the root of the matter is the high number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) are following “Return to Play Criteria” approved late last year. In addition, they are using the Virginia High School Phase III Guidelines as they continue to see high numbers of positive COVID cases that have not been trending down for the past two weeks.
“We continue to look at those numbers and monitor them as we move forward,” said Danny Knott, MCPS’ Human Resource Director.
His remarks came during a school board meeting Tuesday night, and those numbers show that Montgomery County remains in the high-risk category. Once the metrics trend downward for a 14-day period, then high school athletic competition can begin.
Virginia health officials reported Wednesday morning a total of 377,300 coronavirus cases and 5,226 virus-related deaths since the pandemic began, including 5,387 new confirmed and probable diagnoses, marking the highest single-day spike in new cases since the start of the pandemic, and 35 new confirmed and probable fatalities across the commonwealth.
Montgomery County has been averaging 30-40 new cases daily. The county has recorded 5,398 cases, 115 hospitalizations and 43 since the pandemic began.
The New River Valley Public Health Task Force provided a COVID-19 update Wednesday. Health Department Director Dr. Noelle Bissell, said patience is a key word for everyone to remember. It’s going to be a while before the area turns the corner with COVID, she said.
“Even with the vaccinations, we know the current preventive measures are still important,” Bissell said. She also discussed how athletics are being affected. “We are following the Virginia High School guidelines, and I am very happy area superintendents have gotten together and come up with a unified plan.”
The “MCPS Return to Play Criteria” was approved by Region VI superintendents from Allegheny, Covington, Craig, Botetourt, Roanoke County, Roanoke City, Salem, Montgomery, Floyd, Franklin, Patrick, Henry, Martinsville, Pittsylvania and Danville.
The discussion at the school board meeting did not come without controversy as several hundred student-athletes and their families gathered outside the meeting room. Participants held signs that read “Let us play” as board members and staff were greeted with similar chants.
The “Let Them Play” effort has gained momentum as a Facebook page has advocated for measures to change.
Currently, Montgomery County athletes are allowed to practice, but none have seen competition this school year. The timetable comes at a critical point for winter sports as fall sports are scheduled to begin practice in early February.
Knott pointed out that using the Virginia Department of Health Pandemic Metrics Dashboard, schools must be in the moderate category and be trending down or lower level for athletics competition to be held. The only exception under the plan is that the local health department could say there are extenuating circumstances in that locality that minimizes the impact on the activity.
“Right now, those numbers are not at a level where we can play,” Knott said.
Under the plan, he said, the school system looks at the numbers weekly and determines whether or not athletic competition can begin. Knott said the school system is asking athletic directors at each school to adjust on the fly. So far, as many as two dozen contests have been cancelled or postponed.
During a public address time at Tuesday’s school board meeting, parents and some student-athletes pleaded with leaders to reconsider the policy.
Kate Henley, whose son plays basketball and football at Christiansburg High School, said the student- athletes have suffered from not playing. “It’s great that they can go to practice and they can go to weightlifting, but if they can’t compete, then what’s the purpose?”
She also said that athletics have a positive effect on her child and others by keeping their grades up and possibly providing an avenue to college because of their “outstanding play.”
“Every time they turn around it’s another setback, it’s another pushback,” Henley said. “These kids are getting devastated because a lot of them are seniors, not only in Christiansburg, but also the other schools in the county, and they really want to play.”
One teacher did step up to the speaker’s lectern and asked the board to consider “remote learning” for the children in Montgomery County. Currently, grades K-6 are attending school under one format or another. He expressed concern the county is putting staff at risk as much as the students themselves.
Knott told the board that over 60 teachers and staff were out Tuesday because of COVID protocols. The exact number of positive cases within the staff is not known, but he admitted the virus is taking its toll.
The continued struggle with COVID-19 is being felt across the commonwealth. Other states, including Tennessee, have begun play, and some counties in deep southwest Virginia have also started sports competition.
A similar request to “Let Them Play” was heard Monday night during a Roanoke County meeting. School board members there agreed to proceed with a “varsity-only” schedule.
If and when high school sports competition does begin in Montgomery County, basketball players will be required to wear masks during competition, making Montgomery one of only two localities to require them.
The MCPS superintendent told the board Tuesday that all schools that remain on county sports schedules have agreed to wear masks when they play here or away because of the requirement.
Under the current plan, the school system is requiring all competition participants to be screened including temperature checks before entering the school facility. Also, county schools will not allow spectators to attend athletic or academic competition.
Between indoor jayvee and varsity competitions and middle school games, the gyms will be cleared and sanitized.
One proposal that was brought up during Tuesday’s meeting was that if the delay continues, then Montgomery County schools could go to a “county only” schedule for the rest of the winter sports season.
“We hope very soon that our metrics will get us to a point where we can play,” Knott concluded.
“But for now, we cannot.”
The earliest Montgomery County athletes could see the court, mat or pool is January 18.
School sports calendars are already littered with cancellations and postponements.