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Schools in Roanoke Valley and beyond minding traffic in returning to play winter sports

Schools in Roanoke Valley and beyond minding traffic in returning to play winter sports

Roanoke County and Franklin County have the green light.

Roanoke is sitting at a flashing red.

Montgomery County and Salem are waiting for the signal to change.

As the winter sports season has reached the second week of January, high school teams in those school divisions have yet to begin their basketball, wrestling, swimming or indoor track and field schedules.

School administrators have performed a balancing act, weighing the value of students’ participation in extracurricular activities against the need to protect communities from the further spread of COVID-19.

In the last two weeks, Botetourt County and Roanoke County have allowed their schools to begin play.

Varsity sports in Roanoke County will begin Friday with the county’s five high schools — Cave Spring, Glenvar, Hidden Valley, Northside and William Byrd — restricted to scheduling events only against each other.

Both school divisions broke from a November agreement with five other divisions — Roanoke, Salem, Covington, Alleghany County and Craig County — that called for participation to be governed strictly by federal Centers for Disease Control school metrics.

The agreement held that the number of coronavirus cases over a two-week period placed a locality in one of the two high-risk categories, that particular division’s schools would be sidelined for at least one week.

While the Botetourt and Roanoke County administrations gave their athletes the green light, Salem and Roanoke are still proceeding with caution.

Salem presented revised COVID metrics Thursday for Region 6 superintendents to consider with one major change.

If the local metrics place a division below the highest risk or “red” category into the “orange” category, teams would be allowed to compete but only with athletes wearing face masks and no spectators allowed to attend.

For Salem, it is currently a moot point. Based on school metrics Monday, Salem was well into the “red” with high numbers of COVID cases in the city.

Curtis Hicks, Salem’s assistant superintendent of schools, said the division has relaxed some practice restrictions, however.

“As long as students are wearing their face coverings, we are going to let them do some close contact activities,” Hicks said Monday. “We’re trying to limit the number of students who come in contact with each other, and we’re also trying to limit the amount of time.”

Hicks said basketball practice can now include more than just individual drills.

“Then next week, assuming things go well this week, we’ll expand that to actually adding some 5-on-5,” Hicks said. “Then, in the middle or end of next week we’ll probably go back and take a look.”

Hicks explained the school system’s rationale in a letter he sent out last week to Salem students and their parents.

“We must consider the very real possibility that an athlete who contracts COVID-19 through close contact sports might infect family members, who might then infect additional extended family members or co-workers,” Hicks wrote.

“While the risk of serious medical consequences for healthy teenagers is extremely low, that might not be the case for their families or others who might be impacted by any disregard for established mitigation strategies and current COVID-19 conditions in our community.”

Hicks said Salem is monitoring other local school systems whose teams have been playing. Those school divisions include Radford, Buena Vista and Galax; and the counties of Bland, Carroll, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Pulaski, Smyth and Wythe.

Roanoke Catholic will begin its winter season this week, while North Cross will resume after positive COVID tests shut down their boys and girls basketball programs.

“What those folks do does matter, but it’s only one of many data points that we consider,” Hicks said.

“We’ll have some new information. We’ll be able to take a look at what some other folks have done and what kind of impact it’s had on their program.”

Rockbridge County canceled its winter sports schedules, while Alleghany, Bath, Bedford, Craig, Henry, Montgomery and the city of Martinsville remain on hold. Henry County has postponed all winter athletics until schools return to hybrid learning.

Even if Salem could schedule events, the list of potential local public school opponents is extremely limited. Hicks said the lack of available opponents made Salem’s decision to remain on hold somewhat easier.

“It definitely has been something that has helped us hold fast in what we feel we need to do,” Hicks said.

“We obviously don’t want to ultimately do anything that’s going to disadvantage our kids, but at the same time we don’t want to run off a cliff just because everybody else is.”

Roanoke is allowing Patrick Henry and William Fleming to now participate in swimming and indoor track and field meets and resume full-scale basketball practice, while continuing wrestling and cheerleading workouts.

The city said in a Facebook post that it will determine whether PH and Fleming can safely play games against each other in upcoming weeks. Face coverings would be required, and spectators would not be allowed.

The two city rivals were not originally schedule to play each other in 2020-21 in boys or girls basketball.

Franklin County will play three boys basketball games and one girls basketball game along with a wrestling match this week.

While the school metrics still place Franklin County in the “red” range, the division has opted not to use the raw numbers as the only criterion.

“If we’re in the red, we’re looking at other factors,” Franklin County High School Principal Jon Crutchfield said Monday. “Are there any cases in the school, or whatever? We meet each Monday morning to determine that. We got the go-ahead this morning for this week.”

No games are scheduled this week in Montgomery County, which continues to use school metrics on a weekly basis.

With less than four weeks remaining before the start of region tournaments, how will region participation be determined if teams play fewer than a handful of events?

“It may just be who’s able to play,” Christiansburg athletic director Tim Cromer said.

Just getting on the court for a full-scale practice late last week was refreshing for Northside boys basketball coach Bill Pope.

“That was really good,” Pope said. “If anything, we can say we’ve done that.

“We know as good as it feels to do this, that can change very quickly. We’ve got to do everything right and then be very fortunate.”

Contact Robert Anderson at robert.anderson@roanoke.com or 981-3123

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