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Let Them Play Protest

Students, parents and coaches gathered at the state Capitol Monday morning to support playing sports and returning to the classroom.

CHARLESTON — On the football or soccer fields, Kanawha Valley high schools line up against each other in competition. On Monday, they lined up alongside each other to voice their concern with the state’s current COVID-19 regulations for classes, sports and other activities.

An estimated 300 people turned out for a “Let Them Play’’ rally at the State Capitol Monday morning and early afternoon, hoping to convince Gov. Jim Justice to amend his policies and allow athletes a better chance to participate in athletics.

Justice, who made the short trip across the Capital grounds to take part in his regular televised COVID-19 briefing, did not stop and address the crowd as he’s done in past rallies.

However, Justice said later at his statewide briefing that he’ll convene a panel of experts, including Secondary School Activities Commission executive director Bernie Dolan, on Monday evening to discuss possible changes to the color-coded risk factor map.

Many of the athletes and school supporters represented in Monday’s crowd came from counties designated as orange in the state’s COVID-19 map, which meant no in-person classes and no full practices allowed — just strength and conditioning workouts. Most of those schools are located in either Kanawha or Putnam counties, but there were students in T-shirts and jerseys from as far away as Morgantown, Mingo Central, Tug Valley and Oak Hill.

While waiting more than two hours for Justice to appear, students and athletes stood side-by-side in some areas of the crowd and mingled in others — those from George Washington and Hurricane were spotted alongside one another, as were those from Herbert Hoover and Riverside.

Hoover’s Joey Fields, one of at least five Kanawha Valley football coaches seen in the crowd, felt it was his place to support his student-athletes.

“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I want to be here for our kids and for our community, to be on the field and be in the school. We talk a lot to them and I told our kids, ‘I’m going to fight for you, I’m going to be on the forefront of this thing and be with you.’ I think the more supporters we can have, the louder we are together.’’

Kanawha County football teams haven’t been able to play a game so far this season, and only three of Putnam’s four high schools have taken the field for even a single game. In other sports, it follows the same pattern. Currently, seven schools in the state’s color-coded COVID-19 map are listed as orange, and one (Monongalia) is at red, the highest risk.

Some football coaches, like Nitro’s Zach Davis, find fault with the numbers used to compile the state map and determine the high-risk counties.

“That’s where I would challenge them,’’ Davis said. “I’d say these numbers are arbitrary. These numbers are made up, and they make them up to make this metric, and they’ve changed them a couple times, so I think they have to go back and take a look at this. I think it’s fear-mongering. They’re fear-mongering people to think this is more dangerous than it is for our population, which is high school students.

“I hope he reconsiders letting us play, obviously. That’s the biggest thing. I hope he takes a look at the states that are playing football and realize that our metric is arbitrary. Second of all, it’s something other states are not using that have high school sports playing and why we shouldn’t use it, in my opinion. Franklin County, Ohio, is having school and playing football, and why can’t we?’’

Hurricane football coach Jeremy Taylor said he was participating in the rally “hopefully to just bring awareness’’ to what he considers inconsistencies in the state’s policies regarding high school and middle school athletics compared to other youth sports.

“Fairness in the system is all we’re asking for,’’ Taylor said, “all I’m asking for. All or none, especially when it comes to travel sports. If it’s truly about child safety, and I truly believe the governor believes that, then why are orange and red counties letting any kind of organized sports go on?

“I’m not mad at them — travel ball and AAU. They are working within the rules they are given, but it seems like their rules are a lot more lax than ours are. I’m not mad at other sports for doing it. If I had a kid playing baseball, I’d be there, too. But I can’t see where we can say Kanawha and Putnam can’t have school, but we can bring in out-of-state teams and play baseball or softball or soccer or whatever.

“He’ll just have to shut everything down then, won’t he? He said he can’t control them [non-school sports], but he did back in March. He shut down the whole state, constitutional or not. He’s proven that he can do whatever he wants, and in the end that’s what he’ll do.’’

Kanawha football teams, which for two weeks were permitted to practice in full but not play games, are experiencing their first week of limited practices, which include no contact or sports-specific drills, but simply strength and conditioning work. That came over the weekend when Justice made a change to current regulations.

“This weekend was a little disheartening,’’ Fields said. “They’d worked so hard — I’ve got 11 seniors and eight of them play different sports, and that’s still a question, too. They’ve been motivated and optimistic, but of course when they heard that, it’s disheartening. You try to keep them focused and let them know, ‘Hey, we hope this thing changes because it has before,’ just not in the way we necessarily want it to go, or the way it should go.’’

Putnam schools are also in their first work of limited drills.

“Right now, they’re fine,’’ Taylor said of his players, “but give them two, three weeks off and it might be a little different. It’s not about safety, either. How can you go three, four weeks practicing without pads, then jump into a game, and against someone who might be practicing [in full]? You can only do so much.’’

As the weeks go by and his team appears further and further from playing a real game, Fields has to worry about his players’ mindset, but knows they’re still hopeful.

“I’ve asked my kids this,’’ Fields said. “If you could practice now all the way to the end of November and play one game, would you? And the answer was yes. Would you play without fans, without your mommies and daddies there? And the answer was yes. Now that’s unfortunate, but these kids want to play.

“What’s so hard is you’re seeing other states, other events going on and being allowed and we’re almost the ones being punished, and we’re not even necessarily the ones that are positive or feeling symptoms at the time. There’s a way to make this better for everyone without completely shutting everyone down.’’

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