'I THINK IT WAS A REALLY GOOD CALL'

District AD Blice details new CCS skill session plan

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 10/14/20

From an outsider’s perspective, Chatham County Schools moved pretty rapidly last month as it decided to resume high school athletics after a nearly three-month “dead” period.

On Sept. 23, …

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'I THINK IT WAS A REALLY GOOD CALL'

District AD Blice details new CCS skill session plan

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Posted

From an outsider’s perspective, Chatham County Schools moved pretty rapidly last month as it decided to resume high school athletics after a nearly three-month dead period.

On Sept. 23, the county’s board of education floated the idea of bringing back preseason “skill session” workouts. On Sept. 29, the BOE unanimously approved a plan outlining how that would happen. On Oct. 7, the volleyball and cross country teams at Northwood, Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central officially began their return to campus for workouts under the NCHSAA’s Phase 2 guidelines.

From start to finish, the process lasted exactly two weeks.

But the wheels had been turning long before that.

“We had front-end loaded it, just in case,” district athletic director Chris Blice said.

In other words: when the BOE first mentioned a potential resumption, nobody in the CCS athletics brain trust — Blice, plus the principals and athletic directors at each high school — was caught too off guard.

For starters, they had their original plan from the summer, when CCS held two weeks of workouts under NCHSAA Phase 1 guidelines from July 6 through 17. Blice had polled surrounding districts for their athletics plans, and CCS administration had visited three districts, too, in its ongoing evaluation of when and if it could bring students back safely under Plan B hybrid learning.

“Of course, athletics were part of what we asked about,” Blice said of those visits.

Blice also met with the ADs — Jason Amy and Cameron Vernon at Northwood, Josh Harris at J-M and Bob Pegram at Chatham Central — for a series of forward-thinking meetings. They’d previously decided to put athletics in an indefinite dead period for as long as CCS students remained in Plan C.

“We based it on the whole idea of ‘OK, here we are at the end of the nine weeks, but what if it gets extended?’” Blice said. “Because it wasn’t absolute that we were coming back.”

All of that preparation proved crucial in late September. The BOE voted 4-1 to keep CCS in Plan C (at-home remote learning) through the end of the semester on Jan. 15, 2021. But it also remained open to approving certain exceptions to the rule — with athletics as a top candidate.

From there, all Blice needed was a quick check-in with leadership at Northwood, J-M and Chatham Central. The group “pretty quickly got to where we ended up,” he said, with an updated plan to resume.

Here’s the rest of the News + Record’s exclusive interview with Blice, who also works as the CCS chief operations officer, from last Friday. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

In August, you said resuming workouts while students remained in at-home learning was “a little contradictory.” Personally, what’s changed for you from now to then?

Well, I try not to let my personal feelings guide my role. But at some level, I certainly don’t do this blindly. The discussion we had (in late September) was unanimous in that they, as principals and ADs, felt that we were ready to take this step and that we needed to change from our initial thing, which was we’re not going to do anything until kids come back. That it was time to take this step.

I expressed my thoughts on it, and after that I reverted back into my facilitator role. I would say this: if I thought the group was pressing for something dangerous or unethical or along those lines, that wouldn’t be the case — but they would never do that, and I don’t believe that’s what they were doing here. They were making a very heartfelt, very solidly based recommendation.

Did you hear from any parents, coaches or athletes as you made the decision?

Yes, there were a few. They were overwhelmingly in support of us starting back up. One or two folks were not. I read everything. I tried to digest it and be sure I understood what the pros and cons were.

CCS started workouts under the NCHSAA’s Phase 1 guidelines. Now, you can work out under Phase 2 guidelines. What changes are you anticipating?

Some of the spaces that were closed, minus emergency use, are now open with supervision (such as locker rooms and weight rooms). At least in my mind, the steps have gone from basically ‘This is a group of individuals’ to ‘These are groups of small groups, and they’re able to work together, do things within those small groups.’ They’re still preserving social distancing, disinfecting, cleaning and all those things, but it’s less of a focus on the individual and more now a small group type of organization.

CCS middle school athletics won’t resume until January, correct?

Yes, we created a revised schedule. We sat down with the middle school ADs, polled the principals and settled on playing basketball under what we call a “one and done” format. Instead of us playing you at home, and then you coming here, there’s one game between us. It cut the season in half. Then, we’ll do the (basketball) tournament and kick off the spring sports that we cut drastically short last year when we shut down in March. So hopefully, we’ll give them a whole season. We felt that was the most important thing we could do. And, of course, cheerleading will be a part of basketball (in January).

Were you surprised that the BOE passed your athletics plan unanimously, 5-0, with no controversy?

That’s a great question (laughs). Yes, I was. I had prepared — and you always do this going into those meetings — for everything you think might be coming. I honestly had expected the possibility. I can’t say that’s not the first time that’s happened. It’s not all that unusual (for an item to pass so easily), but I won’t say I was disappointed in any way.

What is the district’s response to someone who thinks workouts shouldn’t resume, since the majority of CCS students are still under Plan C?

In our meetings, I cautioned there would be pushback, and they, as ADs and principals, would need to be prepared to answer that question… So we put our heads together and talked about the benefits, what we’re trying to accomplish and why. There’s several different levels to it: physical activity and the value of team sports which is immeasurable. Plus, we’re working in (a good) direction. This actually gives us an opportunity at the high school level to take an interim step and try this out a little bit.

And no, we’re not sitting in classrooms, but we are doing organized, structured activities at our schools. There’s always good reason to do these kind of things. As is customary, folks will agree with you and folks won’t. It was just a matter of us being in agreement, knowing what we want to do and why.

What’s your personal excitement for workouts returning, with actual competitions in the near future?

I think it’s good on a lot of levels. I love the NFL. I’m a NASCAR fan and love college football. I do very much enjoy athletics: pro sports, college sports, high school sports. They’ve been such a big part of my life for so many years. So I just think it’s great. It’ll be really good for our kids. I think we’re going into this with our eyes open — quite honestly, it would have been a lot easier to sit back and say, ‘No, we’re going to do anything until the kids come back.’ It would have been much simpler to do that.

But the ADs and the principals were ready to take the plunge. I think it’s a good thing for us to do for our kids. You can still certainly make the case: should we do this if we don’t bring them back for school? I think you can land on either side of that. But ultimately, at the end of the day, we made the decision to do it — and I think it was a good call.

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

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