CHARLOTTESVILLE — Thousands of student-athletes, coaches and parents were left in shock last spring when the Virginia High School League announced the cancellation of its spring sports season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While shocking and disappointing, the move was not unprecedented.
In 1917, Virginia's high school sports governing body canceled the season because of World War I. The following year, the VHSL pulled the plug on the 1918 season for medical reasons stemming from the influenza pandemic.
According to Encyclopedia Virginia, the pandemic “raged” through the commonwealth from the fall of 1918 through the spring of 1919, spreading through cities, small towns, rural areas and military camps. More than 16,000 Virginians died from the disease, including at least 400 from Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
VHSL associate director Tom Dolan addressed the 1918 flu pandemic during a webinar last month and noted it was a good point of reference for the VHSL and its more than 300 member schools.
“Just over a century ago, we faced the same issue in the U.S.,” he said.
Mike McCall, director of communications for the VHSL, said records are sparse regarding when play resumed for its member schools. He noted schools self-imposed contest limits and scheduled games within their geographical regions before returning to full schedules in the fall of 1919.
According to published reports, the State Board of Heath formally requested the cooperation of the Virginia Anti-Tuberculosis Association on Oct. 4, 1918 to help fight the flu pandemic. The next day, an estimated 10,000 cases were discovered in Richmond. By November, the height of the pandemic had passed through the state, schools reopened and restrictions on public gatherings were limited.
Football on the East Coast was pushed back a month because of the pandemic. Washington & Lee and Virginia Tech played their first game of the season on Nov. 2 in front of an “immense gathering” from the Virginia College student body, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch. However, due to health regulations, the dance after the football game was cancelled.
Locally, Woodberry Forest played the first high school football game in Central Virginia the same day against Augusta Military Academy. The following week, Roanoke High School resumed practice in preparation for its regular-season debut against Martinsville.
There were also plenty of challenges too.
Roanoke College was placed under quarantine as a precautionary measure against the spread of the flu. After 15 new cases were reported among the student body, the school canceled the entire football schedule. According to the Times-Dispatch on Nov. 10, 1918, a ban of all public gatherings which wasn’t supposed to take place until the following week prevented a matchup between Washington & Lee and North Carolina.
“An effort to get the local board of health to lift the ban for the contests proved futile” the story read.
So, as the VHSL prepares for the potential for the return to play for high school sports, Dolan is cautiously optimistic.
“Comparatively [to the 1918 flu pandemic], there were inferior medical opportunities, yet the U.S. came out on the other side," Dolan said. "This is not the first time that this has happened and this might not be the last time it happens in U.S. history.”
Later this month, the VHSL is set to release a guide for general mitigation recommendations, as well as specific requirement for the 2020-21 Championship Plus-1 return to play plan.
“It will have specific requirements that we're changing as far as rules for particular games and events that we feel like are necessary as we go through this process,” Dolan said. “These are the kind of things that we’re going to request of people. Working together, we’re going to get through this unique year.”
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