CCS district athletic director speaks on high school sports and coronavirus

By Chapel Fowler, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/10/20

Last month, Chatham County Schools suspended all summer workouts and athletic activities indefinitely.

And, if current plans hold, athletes and coaches won’t take the field again in an …

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CCS district athletic director speaks on high school sports and coronavirus

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Editor's note: This interview was conducted (and the story published) before the Chatham County Board of Education unanimously voted Monday night to extend at-home learning in public schools to the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 academic year.

Last month, Chatham County Schools suspended all summer workouts and athletic activities indefinitely.

And, if current plans hold, athletes and coaches won’t take the field again in an official capacity until at least mid-September, CCS district athletic director Chris Blice told the News + Record last Thursday.

Starting July 6, member high schools Northwood, Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central held two weeks of workouts under the NCHSAA’s Phase One guidelines, which limited outdoor workouts to 25 total people (and indoor workouts to 10) while banning contact or sharing of equipment.

But the district suspended those workouts “until further notice” on July 17, a day after the Chatham County Board of Education unanimously passed a motion for public schools to begin the 2020-21 academic year, which starts next Monday, with four weeks of remote, at-home learning.

“Because we’re starting with four weeks of at-home learning, that (athletics) suspension, unless there’s some reason to change it, will go through the end of those four weeks,” Blice said.

Near the end of those four weeks — Friday, Sept. 11 is the last school day in the set timeframe — the board will re-evaluate whether CCS can transition into a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning.

Blice said that decision will inform the next step for athletics at the county’s three public high schools. As long as education remains fully remote, though, he doesn’t see workouts returning.

“In our conversations, it’s a bit difficult to say, ‘OK, we don’t feel that it’s safe to bring kids into school for instruction, but we think it’s fine to bring them in for athletics,’” Blice said. “It feels a little contradictory. I think (consistency) is key, because we call our students student-athletes. I think the order of that is really important. I can just say that here in Chatham, we always want athletics to be in line with the school and with academics and those kind of things.”

Here’s the rest of the News + Record’s exclusive interview with Blice, a former Northwood principal who works as the CCS chief operations officer alongside his district athletic director duties. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How do you think the two weeks of workouts at CCS schools went?

Well, I think we had a really good plan. The high school ADs, the principals, the coaches, myself, the local health department, the guidance that we have from the NCHSAA, the other documents we’re receiving from the DHHS — it was a hugely group effort to create the plan. And I believe that our student-athletes and our coaches and everyone who was involved or on campus followed the guidelines with fidelity. What we did realize, though, as we were coming through that second week, was that the world around us was becoming much more concerning in regard to COVID-19.

We reached the point where the majority of the districts around us either had canceled workouts or had changed their plans and never started them… We realized that we were part of the very small group (of districts allowing workouts), and that we needed to sort of reflect on that. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. It just means that there’s something there that you should at least be thinking about. We as a group came to the conclusion that the world around us was becoming more concerning, and that we probably needed to go ahead and stop and just let this settle down a bit before we get back into this.

But I think the two weeks went very well; I think the schools did a great job. I went over and observed more than once myself, watched kids, watched coaches, watched the screening process. We spent a lot of time talking about the fidelity: making sure that we were following what we had set forth and really following up on that. It went really well. The kids were great, the coaches were great, and the athletic directors and everybody else was great.

What are your thoughts on the NCHSAA allowing each school district or individual charter/parochial school to make its own decisions on resuming workouts? And its communication overall?

The situation is so fluid and so different in different parts of the state. I think the flexibility that the NCHSAA has put in place was quite necessary, and I do think that they’re doing a good job of navigating through a very difficult situation. They’ve reiterated again that their hope and desire is certainly for us to play. To put it in my words: they certainly want us to play ball, but we need to be able to do it in a safe way that satisfies the requirements and keeps our kids and our staff healthy. And I think that’s key.

When you’re working through these things, everyone wants to know everything right now. They want all the answers, and they want you to already have all the answers. And of course, if you did, when the situation changes later on, then the same folks would be somewhat critical about making that decision so quickly. It’s a no-win situation, but I do believe that the NCHSAA works hard to be responsive to the schools. I’ve been a principal or involved in administration since 1998, so I can just say that during the last 20 years, I think the organization has grown and progressed and has gone in a very positive direction. It’s a hard job, but we have to have this oversight. We have some great folks there.

What’s the game plan for CCS as we get deeper into the fall?

I think we share the desire and the vision of the NCHSAA. We’re talking a lot about high schools, but for us, it’s high school and middle school. It’s both levels. I think our goal is certainly, when we are able, to get our athletic programs going. I spent my career prior to going into administration as a high school band director — I did that for almost 20 years — and as such spent a lot of time working with our athletic programs. And of course, growing up, I played sports and was involved quite a bit as well. The value of a strong, solidly run athletic program in the life of a school and of the kids in the school is immeasurable. Clearly, I think our goal for all of this is to do whatever we can do, whenever we can do it, but at the same time doing it in a strategic fashion that aligns with the realities of the situation and the guidance that we’re working under. The goal is always to get us back on track as quickly as we can, and do it safely and correctly. So we’re going to constantly be reviewing and watching and evaluating.

Where does these past months rank among your most unique challenges as an administrator?

Wow (laughs). Well, I’ve been in education since 1981. I started as a classroom teacher. And I have never seen anything like this ever. I lived in eastern North Carolina for years, and I rode out the floods and I rode out the hurricanes and I’ve been through a lot of natural disasters. But, you know, the solid foundation of all that, living in eastern North Carolina, was ‘We’ve got (challenges) here, but the rest of the world is pretty much OK.’ All the resources, all those things, it’s all still there.

The flipside with (the coronavirus) is that it’s not. Everyone is in the same situation, and we’re all working our way through it. I have never in my life been a part of anything that was worldwide like this. It’s been very humbling. It’s been a great opportunity to work with some really good folks and learn things. So how does this rank? It’s way up at the top of the list. But Chatham County is a great place to be in. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll work our way through it. And we’ll do what’s right for our kids and for our staffs. Absolutely.

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com  or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.


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