Chatham County Schools, aiming to be 'as prepared as possible,' will start workouts July 6

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 6/17/20

When the NCHSAA’s dead period expired Monday, member schools across the state opened their facilities to teams, athletes and coaches for modified summer workouts.

But Chatham County’s three …

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Chatham County Schools, aiming to be 'as prepared as possible,' will start workouts July 6

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When the NCHSAA’s dead period expired Monday, member schools across the state opened their facilities to teams, athletes and coaches for modified summer workouts.

But Chatham County’s three public high schools held tight. And they’ll do so until July 6.

In a meeting last Tuesday, a day after the NCHSAA announced schools could start workouts under Phase One Guidelines on June 15, county leaders agreed they’d hold off three more weeks and, when the time came, only allow fall sports to practice.

And that’s fine by the NCHSAA — in its original June 8 release, it emphasized member schools could only begin once districts gave their “OK and permission to do so” in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

For the principals and athletic directors of Northwood, Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central, plus Chatham County Schools administration, the decision to delay boiled down to a simple concept: time.

“When we were going through everything,” Northwood co-athletic director Cameron Vernon said, “we basically came to the conclusion that on Monday, we won’t be ready. We won’t be ready in terms of supplies, we won’t be ready in terms of procedure and in just coaching our coaches as to what this looks like.”

‘A little surprised’

Chatham County’s Board of Education first covered the topic in a scheduled board meeting on June 8, the same day the NCHSAA made its announcement.

Chris Blice, the district athletic director, summarized the NCHSAA’s decision and its Phase One guidelines, which he called “quite extensive.”

“I was a little surprised this morning when this popped up and it was, ‘Well we’re going forward with the June 15 (restart),’” Blice later told the board, “because all along, I think a number of us were under the impression that (the restart date) was going to be changed, that that was not going to happen” that early.

Over the next 15 minutes, board members expressed serious doubt in a one-week turnaround time for schools to secure the proper equipment and make the proper arrangements to safely and fully meet Phase One guidelines.

Board member David Hamm noted two major school systems, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County, had announced earlier on Monday they’d delay their workouts until July 6.

“There’s something in there people aren’t comfortable with,” Hamm said.

The board came to a quick consensus that, rather than rushing a decision that night, it needed to hear from high school principals and athletic directors before funneling the information back for consideration. Hamm emphasized the need for coaches’ input, too.

“You don’t need the AD to just tell the coaches ‘This is what we decided,’” he said.

“I can’t imagine that the ADs would decide without having input from the coaches,” superintendent Dr. Derrick Jordan said, “but we’ll certainly reiterate that.”

“Well, the high school athletic association imposed this,” Hamm said, inferring a lack of input in the NCHSAA’s decision.

“No comment,” Jordan said, and the board broke out in laughter.

‘We needed more time’

Last Tuesday afternoon, Blice, the district athletic director, hosted a Zoom meeting with representatives of the three high schools in the district.

Among those on the call were principal Bradford Walston and co-athletic directors Vernon and Jason Amy of Northwood; principal Tripp Crayton and athletic director Josh Harris of Jordan-Matthews; and principal Karla Eanes and athletic director Bob Pegram of Chatham Central.

“We focused more on the guidelines than anything else — how to do it and the logistics of it,” Harris said. “Preparation was the biggest piece there, just making sure that we could do it right and still maintain safety.”

The NCHSAA’s six pages of Phase One guidelines required plenty of discussion.

Most notably, all workout and conditioning sessions are limited to 90 minutes, outside gathering are limited to 25 people and indoor gatherings are limited to 10. Within those groups, workouts must also be conducted in “pods” of five to 10 athletes, and all individuals must keep a 6-foot distance from each other.

All coaches and athletes must be screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms and get temperature checks. If anyone within a pod test positive, all members of the pod must quarantine for 14 days and meet a four-part checklist to return.

And those are just the basics. There are smaller requirements, such as entrance-exit strategies, athletes bringing their own water bottles and deep-cleaning restrooms before and after every use, that will require further planning.

“We need to purchase water bottles — what if a student isn’t able to afford one?” Vernon said. “We haven’t decided if masks are going to be mandatory for our coaches; that’s a possibility...it’s just really making sure we have plenty of time to order items that we need.”

Harris, the Jordan-Matthews athletic director, described Monday and Tuesday as “kind of a glimpse of excitement and then tempering expectations as well.”

Outside of the delay, the group decided on another significant change: only allowing fall sports teams to practice. At the high school level, that generally encompasses football, men’s soccer, women’s tennis, volleyball and cross country — the teams closest to starting their seasons.

If winter and spring sports were also in the mix, Vernon said, “we thought it would just get really messy,” since countless high school athletes play on multiple teams and, under Phase One guidelines, could end up in different pods throughout a week.

The group’s July 6 start date — outside of being a clean three weeks from June 15 — also lines up with an NCHSAA-mandated dead period from June 29 to July 5, a holiday weekend when some athletes and their families may have travel plans.

“I think everyone agreed we needed more time,” Vernon said of the meeting. “We’re in a very good situation where we all really work well together, even if we have some different opinions or views.”

‘As prepared as possible’

Now, communication is at a premium.

“That’s the tallest task,” Harris said, “especially since you don’t see anybody.”

In the hours after their meeting, athletic directors reached out to coaches by phone and email. They broke the news that winter and spring sports wouldn’t be included and encouraged coaches to get the word out further to their athletes and respective families.

“It was a mix of excitement, some timidness, too, and a lot of questions,” Harris said.

The county’s other two high schools, both charter schools independent of the district, are going in a different direction. Chatham Charter announced late last week it would resume workouts June 15, and Wednesday marks the school’s third day doing so.

Woods Charter held an informational meeting Monday with athletic director Dena Floyd and coaches. The school needs a final vote of approval from its board in a Thursday meeting but expects to ramp up shortly after that.

Chatham County’s three public high schools, though, will spend the next three weeks ordering supplies and strategizing to be “as prepared as possible,” Harris said.

“There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle we’ve got to work out before we start,” Vernon said.

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

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