ARRINGTON — While other school divisions in the area, and the Virginia High School League, have allowed for a return to athletic practices amid the coronavirus pandemic, Nelson County is an outlier. Despite positive trends in virus numbers in the locality of 15,000 people and just one high school, the division is keeping students away from fields and gyms for now.
“We’re just trying to do things to keep our kids safe, and our coaches,” Nelson athletic director Greg Mullins said.
Thanks to the stoppage of high school sports in the spring, athletes and coaches went months without staging contests or workouts and without seeing each other in person at all. In June, however, the three-month hiatus came to an end for some teams with the return of offseason conditioning sessions.
Slowly, schools incorporated more skills into practices, with some recently adding the use of balls back into their plans. They’re not fully back to a normal offseason routine, but at least athletes are able to do something, coaches have said.
At those divisions, detailed virus mitigation plans and safety measures are in place. Those actions include cleaning balls and weight lifting equipment, checking for high temperatures and symptoms and social distancing measures. Caution is paramount across the area and state.
In Nelson County, meanwhile, a cautious approach looks different. For the time being, no athletes and coaches are allowed to practice at the school, a policy that will remain in place for at least another month.
Workouts were staged for about two weeks in July, according to Mullins, but that allowance was rescinded after the school board decided to move to remote learning for at least the first nine weeks of the school year.
While some other divisions in the area also have remote learning requirements or options, voluntary workouts are still taking place. In Nelson, the thinking is because virtual learning is in place to preserve the safety and health of students and teachers, in-person workouts during the remote period are not necessary, Mullins explained.
Mullins and division officials have talked about a potential return for athletic practices next month — which would leave about two months before the planned start of 2020-21 athletic seasons — but there is no guaranteed timeline. That decision is left up to the Nelson County School Board.
“We have time,” North District representative Janet Turner-Giles said.
Divisions elsewhere in Central Virginia have left those decisions up to administrators and have not required the approval of a school board. Many of those divisions also formed athletics and extracurricular activities subcommittees, which set up policies for restarting practices, as they weighed returns to school amid the pandemic, whereas Nelson does not have such a committee.
Instead, Mullins and others with the division’s central office have come up with plans for a return for Nelson athletics. Those plans, which include safety and mitigation measures, have been shared internally with coaches in case the school board gives a green light, but they are not publicly available.
Asked after the board’s monthly meeting Thursday about some details of those plans, Mullins suggested Nelson, in keeping with the division-wide health plan, will be especially cautious in the event an athlete tests positive once teams resume practices.
“I think if we have a positive case, we would look at shutting the entire group down,” Mullins said of individual sports. The division health plan also says a positive test among members of the school community would prompt a short-term shutdown of particular school buildings.
Health plans of other divisions around the area are not as straightforward, instead saying school officials would work with the local health department to determine the appropriate steps.
During Thursday’s meeting, school board embers asked to see details of those plans, including a schedule for bringing back specific sports, during discussions about a return. Such talks have taken place at multiple meetings in Nelson.
Thursday evening, board members said data and science would drive their decisions when it comes to staging athletic practices again. While they and Mullins understand the importance of athletic opportunities for students and the chance for teams to get together again, concerns about the potential spread of the virus remained.
“It’s a balance,” Shannon Powell, the board’s West District representative, said. “… We can’t try to solve one problem and create a much bigger problem.”
As of Friday, Nelson County’s coronavirus case count was significantly lower than that of surrounding localities, according to Virginia Department of Health data.
Nelson had 91 total cases, with no new cases reported in the previous 24 hours. The seven-day average for daily cases reported in Nelson was one case per day. Nelson’s peak for daily reported cases was six and came in early tomid-August. In the last two weeks, no more than one case per day has been reported.
In neighboring Amherst County, where offseason workouts — albeit with significantly fewer athletes than before the pandemic hit — are taking place at the high school (with the exception of a short hiatus to allow students to settle in academically at the start of the school year), there have been 333 total cases. Workouts are taking place in Lynchburg, too, where there have been more than 1,000 cases.
The Thomas Jefferson Health District, of which Nelson is a member, had a positivity rate of 5.5% as of Friday, whereas the statewide positivity rate is 7.5%. The Central Virginia Health District, which includes Lynchburg and Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties, showed a positivity rate of 6.1% as of Friday.
Still, Nelson school board members are concerned about the possibility of virus transmission between athletes if they’re allowed to return to practices.
“I just don’t want to create a platform for socialization. Don’t want to see that on school property,” South District representative Ceasar Perkins said. “It’s all well and good until something happens, then it’s our fault for letting something happen.”
Turner-Giles suggested teams meet virtually to provide camaraderie and skill development.
“This is an opportunity for creativity,” she said. “I do not believe you have to be in person to teach a sport.”
A couple of teams have held Zoom meetings, Mullins said.
The county school board will meet Oct. 8 and likely will discuss a return to sports again.
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