The Orange County School Board has scheduled a specially called meeting for Monday that could greatly impact high school sports in Hillsborough for the upcoming academic year.

The board, meeting virtually, will discuss whether to mandate that students, coaches and cheerleaders be vaccinated in order to remain eligible to participate for this season.

It doesn’t just impact athletes and cheerleaders.

In an email sent to parents of Orange County School students on Friday afternoon, Agenda item B6 reads “All students, coaches and employees who directly support athletics, cheerleading, club sports, chorus, marching band, or theater who are eligible for a vaccine must be vaccinated in order to remain eligible to participate effective September 7, 2021 (at least first dose).”

The agenda cites data from the ABC Science Collaborative, coordinated by the Duke School of Medicine and the Duke Clinical Research Institute, that shows COVID transmission is higher for extracurricular activities than standard classroom activities. Studies also show that 50-75% of COVID school transmission occurs during athletics.

The email spread like wildfire across local social media circles on Friday afternoon. Many parents spoke out against the proposal. It was also a hot topic among parents, players, fans and coaches during Orange football’s scrimmage against Riverside at Auman Stadium on Friday night.

It appeared that the pandemic, which heavily altered the 2020-2021 high school sports season in North Carolina, was on its last legs in June. Baseball players and track & field athletes were allowed to compete without masks. Just as practice started last week for fall sports in North Carolina, the Delta variant revived COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationwide.

On Friday, the number of new, daily COVID-19 cases in North Carolina surpassed 6,000 for the second time in a week. There were 6,628 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday. The percentage of positive tests in North Carolina is at 11.6%. State health leaders say 5% is adequate.

Last week, Orange County mandated masks to be worn inside all buildings, one day after Durham instituted a similar measure. Wake County is expected to follow suit on Monday, despite pushback from several mayors.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Orange County has the highest-percentage of people vaccinated in the state. 79% of the population has had at least one shot, while 76% is fully vaccinated. Neighboring Alamance County, which has three of the teams in the new Central Carolina Conference (which includes Cedar Ridge and Orange), has 50% of the population with one dose, and 46% fully vaccinated.

The Delta variant has also led to the return of safety guidelines that were prominent during the pandemic. Volleyball players from Cedar Ridge and Orange competed with masks on during scrimmages last week. Orange football wore masks, as well, during the Riverside scrimmage. While Cedar Ridge football isn’t fielding a varsity team this year, players and coaches have worn masks during practices since workouts started on August 2 under new head coach Torrean Hinton in preparation for a junior varsity season.

The coronavirus pandemic ended the 2019-2020 high school sports season on March 12, 2020, barely three weeks into the spring season. After a dormant and desolate summer and fall, high school sports resumed last November with volleyball and cross country. But it was a constant stop-and-start period for virtually every sport through the winter and spring, filled with last-minute schedule changes and cancellations. There were separate COVID-19 outbreaks with two local teams, leading to mandatory quarantines.

As the winter died down, football season started in February and was relatively free of interruption for Orange and Cedar Ridge through an abbreviated six-game schedule.

The meeting will take place on the same day the fall sports season starts for volleyball, men’s soccer and women’s tennis across North Carolina. On Monday, the Orange volleyball team will travel to Jordan, while the Orange women’s tennis team hosts Carrboro. The Panthers men’s soccer team faces Chapel Hill, while the Cedar Ridge men’s soccer team travels to Northern Durham.

The virtual school board meeting will begin at 5:30PM on Monday afternoon.

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