Note: This story was written hours before the announcement of the NCHSAA's delay of the start of fall sports and could not be updated prior to this week's deadline.
When I was a teenager I used to enjoy going to unusual gift shops with my parents and seeing what off-the-wall gifts I could find.
On one such trip, I saw a unique jigsaw puzzle. It was a picture of a single, solid, red ball.
I couldn’t imagine someone wanting to tackle the challenge of solving it. It would obviously take hours of trying to match the various pieces together since the actual picture was one solid color with no variation in hues or texture.
I think of that puzzle as I stay in touch with high school athletic leaders and people in education as they ponder if there will be a fall sports season for high schools in North Carolina this year.
The picture was made a tiny bit clearer this past week when Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina announced his plan to return North Carolina to school on Aug. 17 using a blended plan of some classroom teaching with specific safety precautions, while also allowing students and teachers to use virtual classrooms with learning from home via electronic means.
But there are countless pieces left to this real, giant, red puzzle, and what’s worse, the puzzle pieces keep changing shape from day to day.
Que Tucker, commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, held a lengthy virtual press conference with statewide media prior to the governor’s announcement, then issued this statement afterward.
“We will continue discussing the numerous options and scenarios that have been developed and recommended, identifying the most appropriate scenarios,’’ she said. “The NCHSAA staff will work with the Board of Directors, Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and other stakeholder groups to solidify the details of the best plan for the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and the communities the Association represents.’’
Meanwhile, the Cumberland County Schools held a virtual briefing of its own last week after the governor’s announcement to address what it meant for local schools.
Joe Desormeaux, associate superintendent of auxiliary services for Cumberland County Schools, said everything is on hold locally until the NCHSAA provides specific direction on the next step.
“We know they are actively discussing many options at this time, to include everything from no sports to reduced seasons, changing seasons and swapping between spring and fall sports,’’ Desormeaux said.
The one concrete thing Desormeaux shared was that whether county students opt for the blended learning program that the governor said the state will adopt, or chose to enroll in Cumberland County’s all-online virtual learning program, they will be eligible to compete in athletics.
Students who choose to go with 100 percent virtual learning will be assigned to compete with the school in the district where they maintain a physical residence. “It is very important that if you have changed your address recently you get those new addresses into the system,’’ Desormeaux said.
Although there are multiple sports waiting for word on what will happen this fall, the most complex one, and the one that has a bearing on income that supports the total athletic program, is high school football.
Vernon Aldridge, student activities director for the Cumberland County Schools, noted that Aug. 1, the traditional start date for fall sports in North Carolina, is rapidly approaching and decisions must be made soon on when or if the fall season will start.
This is especially true for football, which has a lot of moving parts and needs to allow ample time to prepare before actually playing games.
Aldridge said he had consulted with some of the county’s veteran head football coaches, and the consensus among them was they need a minimum of four weeks to work with their teams on the field before they will be able to safely compete in a game.
Another major issue for football is going to be transporting players to and from road games. While all the county senior high schools have four activity busses that can each hold 72 passengers, social distancing requirements will limit each bus to one person per seat, meaning they can only carry 24 people.
Aldridge said home teams may be able to share their busses with the visitors from fellow county schools and work out a plan to transport everyone, but that would just account for the football teams.
Aldridge indicated until there is further direction from the NCHSAA, no plans have been discussed about transporting marching bands or cheerleaders to games.
“We need some answers pretty quickly so schools and school systems can be making decisions,’’ Aldridge said. “Nothing is off the table right now. Maybe (it's) something we are worrying about we might not have to worry about.’’
There has been talk about moving a sport like football to the spring, but if that happens, Aldridge is concerned about what you do with other sports. Everything can’t be played in one season, so that could mean moving spring sports like baseball and softball to fall.
Aldridge is concerned about that because those athletes have already lost a season to COVID-19.
“We need to make sure those kids don’t lose two years,’’ he said.
And suddenly, that solid red puzzle is looking like an awfully easier option to tackle.