Many Wilton High School student-athletes and their families are eager for the kids to get back to playing sports after COVID-related state regulations have limited practice and interscholastic competition for months. Those families may have heard the news they wanted to hear early Monday evening, Jan. 18, when WHS Athletic Director Chris McDougal sent an email entitled, “Important Message re: Winter Sports.”

Wilton families had been waiting to hear whether Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle had approved the plan McDougal submitted for how WHS athletic teams would follow guidelines set by the State Department of Public Health (DPH) and Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). [Note:  DPH guidelines were first issued Nov. 9, and updated on Jan. 8; over the weekend, DECD issued updated sector rules for sports effective today, Jan. 19.] 

McDougal’s plan would set the rules for WHS if the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), the governing body for interscholastic sports in the state, decided to have a winter season, which it did last week (Jan. 14), issuing its own plan that followed state guidelines for safe conduct in winter sports. CIAC’s plan allowed schools to begin practice activities on Jan. 19 and move to interscholastic competitions on Feb. 1.

Even with CIAC’s go-ahead, Bogle still had to review and sign off on McDougal’s plan for each WHS winter sports team before play could actually start for Wilton athletes. Several Wilton parents expressed their concern on social media and in multiple emails to First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice that Bogle would be more conservative than CIAC. They said they’d heard rumors that Bogle would delay the start of WHS’s winter season by at least a week, if not cancel it altogether.

Vanderslice addressed their concerns in her nightly COVID update to residents on Friday, Jan. 15, noting that Bogle would need time to make sure McDougal’s plan aligned with state guidelines.

“A thorough review of the plans requires more than just the one day after the release of the approved CIAC guidance. Once completed, Barry Bogle will discuss his comments and findings with [Superintendent] Dr. [Kevin] Smith and Chris McDougal,” she wrote.

Smith also addressed the community’s concern in a Friday, Jan. 15 email to school families, pointing out that McDougal had submitted his plan to Bogle on Monday, Jan. 11even earlier than CIAC issued its own guidelines. Smith said he’d speak with the health director “as he completes his review” (which was expected to happen over the weekend) and share the next steps with families following that conversation.

The update came from McDougal in his Monday “Important Message” email, which read: “Earlier today, I was informed that our Health Director has approved the plan to move forward with Winter Sports.” McDougal then outlined some of the precautions athletes would have to take during the season to help prevent COVID transmission.

So that settles it…or does it?

‘Fluid’ Season

Something that may not have been clear to the public throughout the timeline is that none of these plans and guidelines guarantee that play will happen. In fact, there’s a possibility play may still get delayed, depending on local COVID case rates.

As GOOD Morning Wilton reported on Friday, direction from state and CIAC officials also included mention of the possibility that the plan might change if case numbers rise too high in a community, following the state’s color-coded system. CIAC’s plan included this:

“In consideration of the State Department of Public Health’s Average Daily Rate of COVID-19 Cases Among Persons Living in Community Settings per 100,000 Population By Town, schools located in towns color-coded as “grey”, “yellow”, or “orange” may proceed with offering winter interscholastic sports as recommended in this guidance. The CIAC, in consultation with the CSMS Sports Medicine Committee, strongly encourages schools located in towns color-coded as “red” to review the COVID climate in that district, with that district’s school doctor and local DPH, in consideration of the appropriateness to continue with game competitions,” [emphasis added].

It’s a direction that has been called “fluid” by local and CIAC officials, in reference to the fact that the decision to allow play may change as COVID metrics change.

While CIAC gives control over whether athletes can play to the individual school districts, the organization can also delay the season at any time it deems necessary:

“Furthermore, when necessary to address spiking COVID metrics, the CIAC will suspend all interscholastic activities for the safety of our students and school communities.

“The CIAC emphasizes that this plan is fluid and in a perpetual state of evaluation. COVID health metrics and data in Connecticut will continue to be closely monitored and the appropriateness of holding youth sport and/or interscholastic athletic contests can change at any time. The CIAC will continue to consult with our stakeholders and will adjust offerings as appropriate, including the suspension of interscholastic athletics, should the health metrics direct that action.”

It’s an important point Vanderslice tried to underscore over the weekend when contacted by multiple parents who questioned how town officials are handling the situation. One such email came from a parent-representative of the WHS Basketball Boosters with the other team parents copied:

“…everyone is getting very frustrated with no guidance when other towns like Wilton already have their plans set.

“What is the delay? It appears from my view point that someone has dropped the ball.
Please can you all come together and give guidance. Our children deserve better.”

Vanderslice emphatically wrote back defending how Bogle and other town officials are proceeding, suggesting that “CIAC officials and others” haven’t been transparent enough with the sports community and potentially setting them up for disappointment.

“Unfortunately, as in the fall, CIAC officials and others have presented information in a manner that allowed them to take no accountability and that buried the ‘fine print’. They had a responsibility to manage parents’, students’ and coaches’ expectations. They failed to do that. You may call it ‘dropping the ball’. I call it passing the buck. Passing the buck to the local health directors.

 “…I understand your frustration and that of your children. The CIAC announcement was interpreted to mean certainty when the plan document itself demonstrated there wasn’t certainty.

“…Throughout the pandemic, the goals of Wilton’s Health Director and the entire Emergency Operations Committee have been the safety and physical health and, to the extent possible, mental health of the entire community within the confines of our authority. During the current school year, a key priority has been to support the schools to ensure some level of in-person education for all students.”

Superintendent Smith also made the point in his email to the WHS community on Friday afternoon:

“The concerns about an immediate return to athletics include the current high rate of daily new cases of COVID-19 in Wilton and in the region (yesterday afternoon the Department of Public Health reported an average daily new case rate for Wilton of 36.1. and an average daily new case rate for Fairfield County of 64.9), the presence of the new variant of COVID-19 in Connecticut, and a potential adverse impact on school operations with the onset of winter sports. The Nov. 9 [DPH] guidance recommends changes and restrictions as a community moves through the various alert levels provided by the Department of Public Health. Wilton and all of the communities are red alert communities, the highest alert level [emphasis added].

“All of these concerns are legitimate and need to be taken seriously. The good news is that there is a general belief that the COVID-19 transmission rates will decline in the coming weeks. That, coupled with a roll-out of vaccinations and our continued adherence to mitigation strategies, will contribute to promoting a safe environment. I am confident that we will have a winter sports season even if our start is delayed by a couple of days. I appreciate your patience and understanding as we work through an established process that has served us well throughout this pandemic.”

At 36 average daily cases (the cutoff is 15 cases), Wilton is one of 166 CT towns currently in the “red zone.” GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to Smith and McDougal Monday evening for further clarification on whether Wilton will participate in interscholastic games/competition if the town is still red as of Feb. 1.

We have also asked who will decide if there will be interscholastic competition at all–Barry Bogle, Kevin Smith, or Chris McDougal?

This article will be updated with their response.