HENDERSON — After enduring a seven-month offseason prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools affiliated with the N.C. High School Athletic Association were finally permitted to begin their abbreviated fall sports seasons earlier this week.

To ensure that his school would be ready for their season-opening volleyball match against Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Vance County High School athletic director Joe Sharrow has worked tirelessly over the past several months to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students, athletes and coaches.

“We have a lot of safety protocols in place,” Sharrow said. “Our top priority is keeping our student athletes and coaches safe. We have very adequate cleaning schedules that we’ve created and implemented for all of our facilities and our students maintain social distancing.”

The NCHSAA Board of Directors voted July 23 to move into Phase 2 of its reopening plan that enabled schools to start offseason workouts under strict COVID-19 protocols before announcing a modified athletic calendar for the 2020-21 season Aug. 12.

Under NCHSAA guidelines, schools are required to maintain a strict cleaning regimen and individuals must wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. Indoor events are also limited to 25 spectators, who cannot enter the building unless they are wearing a mask and pass COVID-19 screening protocols.

With COVID-19 cases now increasing across the country, the NCHSAA recently amended its Modified Sports Manual to include a mask mandate for all coaches and players, who were required to wear masks during practices and games starting Nov. 16 unless they have a medical condition prohibiting them from doing so.

The mask mandate is not mandatory for athletes participating in outdoor sports, but Sharrow has elected to enforce that rule for every single Vance County team, as he knows that one positive COVID-19 test could potentially derail a season and jeopardize the health of everyone on a certain program.

“Everybody knows what it’s going to take to pull this off,” Sharrow said. “Student-athletes are responding very well because they know how important safety is, because we’ve had a lot of discussions about how to keep the athletic programs afloat this year, and wearing masks are an important component of that plan.”

Scottie Richardson, who is the athletic director of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association-affiliated Crossroads Christian, does not anticipate a mask mandate coming in the near future, but he said that the organization is already starting to make changes to safety procedures following the recent surge of COVID-19 cases.

“A change that came in on Wednesday involved keeping home players out of the gym for the next game,” Richardson said. “The visiting school can keep their teams together because they all travel back to their destination together, but we’re now asking home parents to take their children home once their game is over.”

Richardson said that CCS did not experience any significant issues with the COVID-19 pandemic during their fall sports season, and credited both student-athletes and their parents for understanding the restrictions and doing their respective parts to prevent the spread of the virus.

The safety measures that Richardson has enacted include spectator entrances, putting tape on bleachers that specify where people can sit, a one-way exit and a thermal scanner that checks the temperature of anyone who walks into the building, which Richardson says is extremely helpful when it comes to inspecting visiting programs.

Richardson said that the safety protocols at CCS have been met with positive reception from students, fans and visiting schools, and he intends to make any necessary changes to these safety measures as the NCISAA continues to observe the situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The referees have been very complimentary of the procedures we have in place,” Richardson said. “We’ve got a lot of signage up and a lot of places marked off, and everything is going good so far. At the end of every game, we have our announcer ask spectators to clear the gym before the next 25 can come in, which is the limit for home games.”

While Richardson and Sharrow are proud of the efforts their staff and students have displayed so far, both have expressed concerns about completing the fall and winter sports seasons uninterrupted with the United States now averaging 2,000 COVID-19 deaths each day.

“This is a very fluid situation,” Sharrow said. “People need to be prepared for anything. There are a lot of intelligent individuals who have come up with some great protocols, but until we start carrying them out, we won’t know how well they work. If there are any safety measures that we feel are necessary to keep everyone safe, then we will certainly put them in place.”