Attendance at West Virginia high school athletics contests this fall will be determined by the state’s upcoming metric that will evaluate the safety level for schools to be open in each of the 55 counties due to the spread of COVID-19.
Bernie Dolan, executive director of the Secondary School Activities Commission, spoke at the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday in Charleston, and explained that the status of high school games will depend on the metric mentioned by Gov. Jim Justice last week and currently being devised by the Department of Health and Human Resources, the Department of Education and state medical experts. That metric is expected to be announced by Justice any day now, as statewide classes are set to begin Sept. 8.
The metric will use a color-coded system to indicate the safety level for holding in-person classes and extracurriculars like sports — green (low threat), yellow, orange and red (high threat). Dolan said Wednesday that system will also decide how many fans can attend those games.
“We’ll talk about them more as [the metric] comes to fruition,’’ Dolan said. “In our youth sports all summer, kids were playing all sports other than football in some sort of travel or AAU capacity in their community and outside their community, and I think they handled it well. I think we’ve put our schools in position to be able to provide [athletes] much more instruction to make sure they follow the guidelines.’’
When discussing the topic with the Gazette-Mail last week, Dolan tried to gauge how the system might work once the state’s metric is revealed.
“I’m guessing now,’’ Dolan said at that time, “but I would imagine if you’re red, there’s no game and if you’re orange, it’s just critical personnel and no fans, and with green and yellow, you get a little bit of flexibility. And what determines that flexibility is where you are on the spectrum.’’
When pressed to give more specific guidelines at Wednesday’s meeting, Dolan said he’s “not comfortable’’ saying what the restrictions are until the SSAC hears about the state’s impending metric.
“We’re waiting on the metrics to give them some guidelines on attendance,’’ Dolan said. “We expect attendance of little or very small, manageable crowds that are able to social distance. Safety of the players and kids is No. 1, then parents having the ability to watch their children play. After that, it becomes where you are on the color code.
“I’m not sure what the metrics are, but they don’t play [games] until Sept. 2nd or 3rd, so attendance guidelines aren’t in play for a couple weeks.’’
As a lead-up to the state’s color-coded system and its effect on attendance, Dolan stressed to schools that they shouldn’t be selling tickets at the gate for games, and urged them to have presales for whatever amount of tickets they’re eventually allowed to honor.
“I don’t think you want people walking up and buying tickets,’’ Dolan said, “because then you have a crowd of people getting in or not getting in and you’re causing a problem. I think the expectations we’ll deliver to schools is that we’re going to limit the capacity and everybody in the stands is expected to have their face covered and social distance. Obviously, for those who don’t follow the guidelines, there could be some ramifications.
“Reducing the [number of active COVID-19 cases], as well as [increasing] the attendance makes for a great incentive for our communities to have a tiered method to make sure we can play, to make sure more people can go, and the only way is to move up the color code.’’
Board member Dave Perry, noting that sports are scheduled before students return to school buildings for classes, asked Dolan if the SSAC had taken notice of what neighboring states are doing with high school athletics — Kentucky moved back its start of football season three weeks, one of 37 states to modify or delay their sports seasons. West Virginia has already moved back preseason practice two weeks and delayed the regular season by one week.
“We have looked at it,’’ Dolan said, “and quite honestly, our biggest concern is when the end of fall sports season is combined with the flu, it may be short at that end. If we move it much further, I really think it shortens the season and maybe makes it not as valuable. It’s not unusual — every year, we have school athletics long before school starts.’’
Justice recognizes the significance of athletics to a school’s students and community, and is holding out hope that the state’s and SSAC’s plans can succeed.
“I know how important sports are to our kids and to our communities,’’ Justice said. “We’ve got a lot of kids that are so at risk that without sports, we’re going to lose them. I want us to be able to play and from the standpoint of being able to play, we may end up playing with no fans, we may end up playing with only family, we may end up not able to play.
“I think we should go full steam ahead with the hope, with the idea of still being able to pivot, still being able to watch the numbers and pivot. ... I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to play football.’’