Updated 5:45 p.m.:
With the number of reported COVID-19 cases on the rise statewide and a holiday weekend coming up, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and Guilford County Schools officials have decided to postpone the start of high school sports workouts until at least July 20.
Both school districts had planned to resume workouts Monday, but opted to hit the reset button today. The latest postponement of high school athletics casts more doubt on whether competition can begin as scheduled the week of Aug. 17, although neither district nor the N.C. High School Athletic Association has announced any change in that start date.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools athletics director John Sullivan said that after a "Back to School” Athletics Committee meeting this morning it was decided that it “was in our best interests” to wait.
Sullivan’s Guilford County counterpart, Leigh Hebbard, said “the biggest factor” in his district’s decision to postpone was the upcoming July 4 weekend.
“There are a lot of things we have control over and this has all been about putting safety at the forefront,” Hebbard said, “but there is just so much that’s going to go on this weekend gathering-wise that we just have no control over. So we just thought it was in the best interests of everyone to put it off and not have kids going to family gatherings this week and come back and have workouts next week and the week after.
“By the time we get to the 20th, hopefully someone who’s been exposed would’ve started to have symptoms and had time to get tested so we’d know where we are.”
The total number of reported COVID-19 cases in North Carolina was 68,142 as of noon today, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That was a one-day increase of 1,629 new confirmed infections since Wednesday. Forsyth County also leads the Triad in reported cases.
“Yesterday was the second-highest day, as far as number of cases, and the number of hospitalizations yesterday was in the top 10,” Sullivan said. “Watching what was going on in South Carolina and Tennessee completely shutting down their athletics ... A lot of places that started three or four weeks earlier than us are popping up to the point where they have to shut down completely.”
Sullivan and Hebbard both noted Gov. Roy Cooper’s failure to announce a decision Wednesday on plans to reopen the state's schools for the 2020-21 year.
“We felt like it was in our best interests to delay because we feel like it would be harder for us to restart it again if we were to start and then stop,” Sullivan added.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Wake County Schools, as well as the Alamance-Burlington School System, also opted to push back the start of athletics this week. Winston-Salem/Forsyth and Guilford County schools had been working toward a resumption of high school athletics, which were shut down statewide March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we started this,” Sullivan said, “one of the four ADs on our (restart) committee, Mike Pennington from West Forsyth, said at the very beginning, ‘We’re only going to get one chance to get this right.’ We’ve been living by that ever since. We’ve been teasing him about that, but he was dead-on.”
One thing the delay will do is give school districts more time to prepare for the challenges athletics directors, coaches and athletes will face in resuming workouts amidst a pandemic.
“We had enough (personal protection equipment and) supplies to get off to a good start, but not everything was in yet,” Hebbard said. “This allows us to make sure all our supplies are in and we know we’re good for a lengthy period of time once we actually get rolling. It also gives us time to answer any lingering questions that might pop up and give athletics directors more time to go over everything with their coaches to make sure we’re ready to go.”
With athletics and other extracurricular activities on hold once again, Sullivan is concerned that N.C. high schools might never be ready for a traditional fall sports season.
“There’s so many factors that we can’t control,” he said. “What are (student-athletes) doing on the weekends? What are they doing in the evenings? What’s the other team doing? Until this thing heads downward or we have a vaccine in place, I’m not optimistic.”
Hebbard said the window to resume high school sports is shrinking, and he believes much will depend on when and how the academic year begins.
“I don’t know that we want to start athletics at the same time school is actually starting because it’s going to be such a strange time,” he said. “We either have to get off to a good start a couple of weeks before school starts or we need to wait a week or two until after school starts.
“By the first week of August, if we can’t start I think we’re looking at Labor Day-ish before we could try to do anything.”
Journal staff writer Ethan Joyce contributed.