Athletics are back in North Carolina high schools, but just what that looks like has varied greatly between public and private schools.
Back in August, the North Carolina High School Athletics Association (NCHSAA) approved an altered schedule that only just started allowing volleyball and cross country teams at public North Carolina high schools to return to practice on Nov. 4, with competition beginning next week.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association (NCISAA), which governs athletics at private schools in the state, has completed its fall schedule — except for its fall football championships.
The cause for the difference in schedules was due to the NCHSAA board of directors voting before the Aug. 12 calendar release to delay the season. An internal survey of NCHSAA member schools revealed that most principals were in favor of playing sports, but delaying most activities until the spring semester.
"We wanted to provide our student athletes the opportunity to participate in sports, just like they always have," Que Tucker, commissioner of the NCHSAA, said.
Right now, the only sports taking place in public high schools are cross country, which is labeled as a low-risk sport by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and volleyball, which is a medium-risk sport. Those sports can also only be played if each schools' county school board votes to return to athletics in line with the NCHSAA calendar.
Tucker said because the NCHSAA governs public schools, the recommendations of the health department regarding amateur athletics are more like mandates that the public schools must follow. That means high-risk sports like football won't be played until the state gives the go-ahead for public schools.
"We (need to) get a green light, if you want to put it that way, from the Department of Health and Human Services. We can't play football right now," Tucker said. "The other entities, while they may be doing some context sports, they're simply going against the recommendation."
Schools in the NCISAA have already nearly finished their fall seasons, opting to delay the full slate of fall sports — cross country, girl's golf, girl's tennis which are low risk; volleyball, boy's soccer and field hockey which are medium risk; and football which is high risk — only until September.
Susan Steadman, assistant director of the NCISAA, said the NCISAA considered postponing the athletics season until the spring, like the NCHSAA, but ultimately decided it wasn't necessary to delay that long.
"Private schools, some of them take those guidelines, quite literally, and that is their basis for making decisions on how they do education and athletics," Steadman said about schools following the guidelines from the NCDHHS. "But it is a spectrum. And not everyone manages those, some people see them more as guidelines and probably feel that many are practical for them, and they use them, but not 100 percent as a mandate."
Durham Academy is one private high school that plays under NCISAA in the Triangle Independent Schools Athletic Conference. Andy Pogach, Durham Academy's athletic director, said the school is following all the guidelines from the NCDHHS.
"If anything, I think we're more stringent in our rule-following than what the state has put out there," Pogach said. "I mean, we are doing temperature checks and screening. We are doing mask-wearing. Our coaches, our administrators, our spectators are all wearing masks. Our kids are wearing masks up until the time the game starts."
Durham Academy doesn't have a football program, which Pogach said made the return easier because no decision had to be made about playing a high-risk sport this fall. The school allowed workouts over the summer that were socially distanced with heavy restrictions; students wore masks and were not allowed to share any equipment, including balls.
When Gov. Roy Cooper moved the state in Phase 2 of its reopening, students were allowed to share equipment and tryouts were conducted while socially distanced. By mid-September, students were scrimmaging while wearing masks, and Durham Academy even had players wear masks during competitions, although that restriction was lifted in mid-October.
Steadman said during the season for NCISAA schools, there were students participating in athletics who tested positive for COVID-19, although declined to say how many or at which schools. Schools that had positive cases canceled part of their schedule.
"They quarantined, they did what their local health department told them to do with tracing and quarantining," Steadman said. "No one sacrificed safety or health to get in games, they responded, and none of it impacted our us on a large enough scale to stop playing sports."
For public schools, their county school boards had to approve a plan to return. Orange County Schools, which contains Cedar Ridge High School and Orange High School, approved a plan that differed slightly from the overall guidelines from the NCHSAA, requiring schools to return to workouts in a gradual manner.
For the first week of optional workouts starting on Oct. 14, coaches and athletic directors at OCS were allowed to only conduct two workout sessions with 50 percent intensity said Jason Johnson, the OCS executive director of student support. Programs were allowed to increase the intensity and number of workouts each week until practice started on Nov. 4.
"You want to bring them back slowly, where you're not going 100 percent all out the first practice because that you do that and you know, the chances of injury increases," Johnson said. "So by reducing the amount of intensity, you just want to ensure that nobody gets hurt."
Because of the differences in schedules, its unlikely public and private schools will be able to compete against each other in competitions this year. Pogach said Durham Academy usually schedules several local public high schools for its fall sports season, but that his school's season would be over by the time those schools were just starting.
There will be some possibilities for cross play though — Tucker said in a panel with HighSchoolOT.com on Oct. 29 that some schools would be allowed to schedule football games with NCISAA schools who opted to have their football season in the spring.
Both private and public athletics organizations said they felt it was important to have some form of athletics for students to participate in this fall while schools are at altered schedules.
"(Sports) have a role to play in enhancing our academic pursuits of our student athletes. That's our mission," Tucker said. "And in keeping with our mission, we want it to be able to provide interscholastic athletics that enrich and support our AP, academic programs."
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