The ACC and Virginia Tech football continue to push forward towards a 2020 season, but COVID-19 still looms with just over two weeks until kickoff.
Tech already may have a problem on its hands after their first opponent NC State was forced to suspend all athletic activities Monday due to a cluster of 27 positive cases within the athletic department.
“I feel like it’s like you walk off the practice field and you’re just waiting for the new news that happened. It’s not a daily thing, it’s almost an hourly update,” Head Coach Justin Fuente said. “I think that’s going to be the normal. There’s so many, not barriers, but there’s so many checks and balances that everybody has to try to do for the right reasons. That news and information can change really quickly.”
The university already has moved all courses online for the rest of the fall semester after over 500 students were exposed to the virus.
It is unclear whether the Wolfpack will resume athletic activities shortly, but this news from Raleigh could seriously impact the Hokies’ early-season plans. Tech still plans to host NC State in Lane Stadium on September 12.
“Opponents can change, and schedules can change,” Fuente said. “You’re going to have to go with the flow a little bit.”
Throughout fall camp, the Hokies have been making a conscious effort to limit contact between members of the program. This doesn’t eliminate situations where the virus could be spread, but the team is doing everything they can to social distance.
“We’ve spent hours and hours talking about how to try to mitigate what we can control,” Fuente said. “From meeting spaces, to how we sit, to masks. When we’re on the field, I was shocked by how small of a time that players are in the contact zone. The part we can control is when they’re on the sidelines or waiting for a drill to start. We’re spreading out during those times”
These measures will also be seen on game day. Although the team will still be communicating with each other, the team box on the sideline has been expanded for this season to allow players and coaches to spread out.
“[Staying socially distant] has been a huge point of emphasis for us. It’s as simple as extending your arms on both sides,” Fuente said. “It still happens though; you’re still having conversations and talking about what’s going on from player to player. Coaches are in masks or shields on the field to help with that.”
Fall camp seemed to go off without a hitch for Tech, but now the real test comes with 30,000 students descending on Blacksburg, VA.
On Monday, Virginia Tech began in-person classes for the first time since the pandemic began in March. According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, Tech has found just 21 positive cases in over 9,000 tests as of Sunday.
This next week will be especially important if Lane Stadium is to see any action this fall. Athletes will be interacting with other students for the first time, and a few cases within the program could shut everything down.
“We have to make sacrifices. It’s easier for me than it is for the kids,” Fuente said. “When I’m done with work, I go home and see the same four people every day. I go to work, and I go home. When I was 19 or 20, that wasn’t what I did. What we do affects everybody else in our room.”
Avoiding this fate will come down to athletes and students making good decisions and avoiding high-risk situations. Asking college students to stay inside and away from others is not an easy task, but Virginia Tech has already taken steps to incentivize responsible behavior.
In an email on Sunday evening, Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Shushok sent out new guidance about COVID-19. Masks are mandatory unless you are exercising outdoors, and all gatherings are limited to no more than 15 people. Failure to abide by these regulations could result in suspension and removal of on-campus housing.
With universities across the nation closing up shop for 2020, Virginia Tech has made it clear that everyone needs to work together to keep the semester and sports going.
“Our kids can’t test positive because if they do, they’re removed from football,” Fuente said. “There’s another population of students out there that may not have as much to lose in terms of those things. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but that’s just how it is.”
There is the chance that athletics could continue, even if the university was to close and move classes online. North Carolina has already elected to keep athletes on campus, despite transitioning to online courses. However, it becomes a much tougher decision if students are sent home, but athletes are not.
“The classes thing is only one part of it. Is everyone still out having parties and doing everything that college kids do? The in-person classes thing is only one part of it,” Fuente said. “We’ll talk about it if we get to that point, and we’ll do whatever our leaders and institutions see fit. That’ll be a decision that isn’t made by me.”
Tech seems to be in a better spot than many universities, but football is still not guaranteed to come to Blacksburg next month. The Big 10 and the PAC-12 have already moved all fall sports to the spring, and other major conferences like the ACC could be next if trends don’t change.
“I wouldn’t be truthful if I said I haven’t thought about it. It’s human nature to think about those things, but you’ve just got to do your best to continue to put one foot in front of the other,” Fuente said. “If there’s one thing we know is that this is fluid. Over the last six months, we’ve learned that the situation is fluid. We’re going to have to adapt based on the information we have at the time.”
The clock is ticking with just days before the kickoff of the ACC season, and Hokies football continues to tread forward lightly, just hoping that it all doesn’t fall apart.