Marion County rejects WVSSAC's phase-in plan, adapts own version

North Marion football coach Daran Hays, center, and his staff talk to the players after a 2019 summer practice at Woodcutters Stadium.

FAIRMONT — West Virginia’s attempt to tip toe closer to the restart of high school sports has hit a bit of a snag in Marion County, at least for the time being.

The Marion County Board of Education and county superintendent’s office have rejected the beginning stages of a gradual phase-in plan for high school sports put forth by the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission. The outline of the plan by the WVSSAC permitted athletes to participate in “non-sport specific” activities, such as conditioning, strength training, and agility drills, with coaches starting June 8 as the first phase of a three-phase proposal. The Marion County school system disapproved of both the plan’s first and second phases, which were tentatively scheduled by the WVSSAC for a four-week period from June 8 to July 3.

As it stands, the Marion County school system is aligned with the WVSSAC’s plan for the third phrase which is the annual three-week live practice period, set to begin in the majority of West Virginia’s counties on July 5. The WVSSAC placed various restrictions in its phase-in plan for the live period and Marion County would adhere to those same restrictions.

Although the Marion County school system rejected the WVSSAC’s first two phases of the three-phase plan, the county will still grant coaches more access to their players than they had before starting June 8. However, all contact between coaches and players must be done virtually as opposed to face-to-face in the WVSSAC’s plan.

“Marion County, as of June 8, is allowing our coaches to interact with their (athletes), but only in a virtual way,” said East Fairmont athletic director and girls’ basketball coach James Beckman. “Our kids are allowed to participate in Phase I and Phase II — we are not keeping them from being a part of that Phase I conditioning and strength training. Our coaches in Marion County are to submit to our athletes an electronic workout document for them to work on on their own. So it’s that athlete’s choice if they want to go to their household or go to an open facility to work on that document that was provided by their coach.”

The WVSSAC’s guidelines for the first phase allowed for athletes to participate in non-sport specific activities in small groups or “pods” under coach supervision in outdoor settings, including the use of school athletic facilities, for a two-week period beginning June 8. Each “pod” was limited to a maximum of 10 athletes, with the understanding that all athletes and adults adhere to social distancing guidelines and wear face masks/coverings when appropriate except for during high-intensity aerobic activity. All athletes in a group or “pod” were required to remain in that specific group for the entire duration of the plan’s first and second phases. Only one group or “pod” was permitted to be in a single workout area or outdoor facility at one time.

Other stipulations in Phase I of the three-phase plan includes a limit of one hour of activities per day per group or “pod,” no sport specific activities, and would be required to disinfect all non-sport specific equipment after each use.

Marion County’s adaptation of the WVSSAC’s Phase I plan, however, bans all coach-athlete face-to-face interactions, doesn’t allow for the use of school facilities, and essentially renders all of the details concerning “pods” moot because coaches cannot organize group workouts among their athletes. The only material change for Marion County athletes from June 8 through July 3 is they can receive virtual workout plans from their coaches, pending those workout plans are approved by each school’s athletic director. Athletes still cannot meet with their coaches in person nor use school facilities.

As it stands right now, the Marion County school system intends to maintain the same allowances and restrictions for county coaches and athletes for the full four-week period of June 8 through July 3. The decision is in contrast to the WVSSAC’s plan, which allowed for slight changes from Phase I (June 8-19) to Phase II (June 22-July 3). The most notable changes in the WVSSAC’s plan from Phase I to Phase II is it allows for multiple groups or “pods” up to a maximum of 25 people in one designated workout area, allows for the use of outdoor and indoor school athletic facilities, and allows for a maximum of two hours of activities per day per group, up from one hour in Phase I.

“Things could change. Next week, the week after, we could be allowed to have contact with our kids, but as of right now, we are recommending coaches send everything electronically to their athletes,” said Beckman.

There are currently no scheduled meetings, however, by the Marion County school system to re-evaluate its adapted plan throughout the scheduled duration of the phase in from June 8 through the three-week live period, according to Beckman.

The last phase of both the WVSSAC’s plan as well as Marion County’s adapted plan is a restricted version of the annual three-week live practice period. The majority of restrictions in the WVSSAC’s plan are related to extra COVID-19 precautions, such as social distancing, face masks/coverings when appropriate, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting of equipment after each use. The WVSSAC still recommends “pods” of 10 athletes or less during the live period unless intrasquad scrimmaging, but allows for as many as 50 athletes in a designated workout area. Practice sessions can be up to three hours long during the live period. One of the more notable restrictions is that competition against other schools is not allowed during the live period which essentially erases all scrimmages, tournaments and shootouts.

The higher risk sports of football, wrestling and cheerleading have additional restrictions during the live period under the WVSSAC’s plan. No body to body contact is permitted in any of the three sports, equating to a greater emphasis on individual drills. And in football, helmets and shoulder pads are not allowed, nor are handheld shields. Football groups also cannot exceed 25 total athletes.

“A lot of these kids have been inactive from March until now, and my concern that I told my coaches is that because we’re not doing Phase I and Phase II hands on with the athletes, don’t come into Phase III at full force. And then when you’re planning your workout documents for (Phases I and II), don’t make it a strenuous workout for them on Day 1 because of those months off,” Beckman said. “It’s a trying time, it really is, but you’re dealt with the hand that’s given to you, and I got a lot of creative coaches who work well with each other, and anything that we ask them to do they are going to find ways to get their student-athletes active.

“We’re just taking a different approach than other counties, and we may see some other counties jump on board with what we’re doing or we may not. We’re going to keep our athletes and coaches safe No. 1.”

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.