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A Mount Tabor football player takes a knee during halftime of a game against Glenn in 2018 at Bob Sapp Field in Winston-Salem. A fall sports season, already pushed back a month with initial practices not scheduled to begin until “at least” Sept. 1, remains in jeopardy because of rising coronavirus cases across North Carolina.

John Sullivan shared a personal opinion on July 17, just a few hours before Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, in a virtual meeting, decided on remote learning for the first nine weeks of the school year. 

Sullivan, the athletics director for WS/FCS, said he hoped the N.C. High School Athletic Association didn't follow the path of Gov. Roy Cooper. A fall sports season, already pushed back a month with initial practices not scheduled to begin until "at least" Sept. 1, remains in jeopardy because of rising coronavirus cases across North Carolina. Cooper, on July 14, announced that the state's public schools would transition to Plan B — a mix of virtual and in-person learning — while granting districts, such as WS/FCS three days later, the discretion to implement stricter policies. 

The status of high school sports remains to be seen, NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker said on Wednesday, although developments hinge on Cooper's decision to extend Phase Two — a limitation on gatherings to 25 people, among other regulations set to expire on Aug. 7 — or move to the final step of the state's three-part reopening plan. But, with large districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Wake County Public School System and WS/FCS having decided to indefinitely delay limited summer workouts and hashing out learning plans for the fall, who's going to make the call on a season?

Sullivan said, at the time, the state's city and county athletics directors were awaiting guidance from the NCHSAA. He said he hoped his district wasn't left with the choice.

"We want to hear from them as to what it is we're supposed to do — we're allowed to do," Sullivan said. "If they leave it up to us, it's going to be anarchy. 

"I mean, that's good for the one-school counties. But that's not good for the large urban areas."

The area's smaller counties weren't ravaged by the pandemic like Forsyth and Guilford — 9,069 COVID-19 cases combined overall, according to Friday's data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The high country regions of Ashe, Wilkes and Alleghany have 822 cases — 60 between ages 0 to 17. According to Tucker, further moves to craft a plan will apply state-wide, despite the outbreak's contrasting numbers in those counties. 

And, with districts moving toward a learning framework for the 2020-21 school year beginning Aug. 17, Tucker said the NCHSAA will soon survey its member schools to gauge if each plan would allow for athletics on campus.

"As we do with everything, we are a membership-driven organization and the organization exists for all schools — all public and non-boarding parochial schools from the mountains to the coast," Tucker said. "... I think the decision as is relates to, 'Do you allow the mountains to play?' and then they try to have some sort of sports season that we would still oversee while Winston-Salem/Forsyth and Wake County are closed down, well no. We wouldn't do that.

"We know that the virus has no respect for county lines. We've heard our governor and we've heard (Dr. Mandy Cohen) say the same thing. You just can't open up one county, or one region of the state, and say 'We're going to allow this' because, in athletics, there's going to be a traveling team and there's going to be a home team." 

Wake County, which has the state's largest district, on Tuesday adopted Plan B Transition, with students beginning the first two weeks online before shifting to in-person classes at a later date. CMS, the state's second-largest system, voted to move toward Plan B Plus Remote — the first two weeks of the school year being socially-distanced in-person learning, before moving all online. Tucker hoped to have the survey's results by the time Cooper announces a decision on the status of Phase Two. She said districts such as WS/FCS would still be permitted to have athletics under Plan C. 

Leigh Hebbard, Sullivan's counterpart with Guilford County Schools, said the district would need to respond once the NCHSAA developed a plan. He pointed out recommendation from Superintendent Sharon Contreras for virtual learning for the first five weeks of the year. Hebbard said additional feedback would likely be needed from athletics directors, principals — eventually given to Contreras and an executive cabinet. 

“I understand the value of athletics beyond athletics," Hebbard said. "There are stories coming out about the mental health of athletes and how not having these programs is starting to affect teenagers. We’re well aware of all that, but it’s not as easy as some people think it is to make it work.”

pferlise@wsjournal.com

@PatrickFerlise

Joe Sirera, a reporter at the Greensboro News & Record, contributed to this story. 

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