By Polly Mikula and Katy Savage
On Friday, Dec. 4, Governor Phil Scott announced that the season for youth winter sports would continue to be postponed due to surging Covid cases in the state. Scott originally announced the ban Nov. 24.
Recreation and club sports activities have been on hold since Nov. 14, when the state stated “all indoor and outdoor organized sports, including youth leagues, adult leagues, practices, games and tournaments are suspended until further notice, including Vermont-based teams in interstate play.”
“Like recreational sports, [school sports] are paused until further notice,” Scott announced, Nov. 24. The winter sports season for K-12 public schools was scheduled to begin Nov. 30.
On Friday, Dec. 4, Scott added: “Our data does not support the return of school or recreational sports at this time. I will continue to evaluate this each week.”
The prohibition includes outdoor youth ski training.
Part of the justification from the state for such restrictions is to comply consistently with the ban on multi-family gatherings that has been in place since Nov. 13. But there are exceptions.
Lisa Loomis, the editor from the Valley Reporter in Waitsfield, asked a question from a reader at Tuesday’s press conference, Dec. 4: “Why is some indoor youth programming such as gymnastics, ballet and hockey lessons allowed but outdoor youth ski training is not allowed?”
Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, answered by clarifying the allowance for private and semi-private lessons only.
“Private lessons and semi-private lessons actually fall under a section 8.1 of ACCD’s work safe state guidance and that is what governs those particular types of activities,” she said. “There are expectations that participants will remain physically distant at all times and facilities need to put in place systems to ensure that there is no congregating during arrival or departure. If all of those things are in place, then those activities are allowed to take place under section 8.1.”
Asked if the guidance provided any workarounds for youth ski training or weekend ski programs, Moore said “it does not,” adding, “this is specific to training not competition. It needs to be private or semi-private. So individual skills and drills work would be allowed under this section but there are no competitive events that should be taking place at this time. Nor any types of programs recreational or competitive that have large groups of people gathering to participate.”
So what does this mean for ski training and racing this season?
Right now, it seems the only groups that are allowed to train are those who race at ski academies and are considered a pod, or a single household, collectively. Killington Mountain School (KMS) has been training on-slope at Killington and many others have been sighted as well including: Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS) from Waitsfield, Burke Mountain Academy, Mount Snow Academy, Stratton Mountain School and Okemo Mountain School.
The Vermont Alpine Racing Association (VARA) met with state officials on Monday, Dec. 7 to discuss how ski training and competitions might proceed safely this season.
VARA Executive Director Julie Woodworth (as well as the 25 coaches and program directors from around the state on the call) hoped to glean more clarity about the state’s guidance. She said ski clubs and academies are willing to do what it takes to maintain programming this year.
“They’re committed to keeping people safe and doing what they need to for their kids,” Woodworth said.
There are seven ski academies in the state, serving more than 400 students, who come from across the country and around the world. Woodworth said most students have been here since August.
Ski academies rely on student tuition to employ teachers, trainers, coaches and staff.
“It would be pretty devastating for them [to close],” Woodworth said. “It’s a business like anything else.”
Students in Vermont academies are also on track to develop their careers in college and beyond.
“It’s really important to be able to train and develop skills,” Woodworth said. “They’re making a financial commitment, an academic commitment and an athletic commitment.”
Woodworth said Vermont’s race programs are in competition with others in the West and nearby New Hampshire, which are letting on-snow programs move forward.
“It’s an outdoor sport, it’s low risk,” Woodworth said. “I’m not saying our state isn’t doing the right thing. I think they’re doing the right thing. We need to figure out how to make it work.”
While awaiting clarity, local academies and ski clubs are left in limbo with how to plan for the competitive season.
“It’s such an evolving situation right now,” said Okemo Mountain School Head Mariel Meringolo.
OMS is open and students are learning and exercising, but Meringolo said events through the month of December have been postponed.
On-snow programs at Stratton Mountain School (SMS) started in early November. Students traveled to Vail, Colorado, as they usually do for early season training, before Scott’s restrictions. SMS students are scheduled to start on-snow training at Stratton in mid-December.
“We are following Governor Scott’s orders and looking at how those apply with the U.S. ski and snowboard guidelines,” SMS Headmaster Carson Thurber said.
For the Killington Ski Club (KSC), the matter is even more complicated.
At points last week, the Killington Ski Club thought it would be ok to start training on Saturday, Dec. 5. But after a conversation with the resort the Friday just prior, it announced: “Late this afternoon, KSC/KMS program staff were informed by Killington that development programs need to be postponed until further notice.”
“Last week was like a yo-yo,” said Chuck Hughes, the development program director for KSC/KMS. “We were pretty sure we could run our programs, then think maybe we couldn’t, then we’d get more clarity and again think we could…”
KSC is an academy-based program, sponsored by KMS. It differs than other club-level programs such as Pico’s which is a 501(c)(3) and Okemo’s, which is operated by the mountain, Hughes explained.
“We’re sort of in limbo. We need clarification,” he said. “There have been lots of conversations but nothing’s in writing. It’s hard to know, it’s hard to plan.”
Hughes said while they were waiting on further guidance from the VARA and the state, KSC’s program directors and head coaches are engaging with kids and their parents in new ways over Zoom.
“They will be having virtual calls with the kids and parents and running things like a virtual ski tuning workshop,” Hughes said, adding that the club would also be recommending some great books and movies and skills trainings that kids could do while the teams cannot meet up to train in-person.
Hughes said, he hopes to have more clarity (and permission) to train before the holiday weeks, but he wasn’t sure if that was wishful thinking at this point.
At the regular press conference on Tuesday, Dec. 8, Governor Scott addressed the possibilities of relaxing mitigation measures in general saying, “we really want to get beyond Christmas and New Years… after that, I think we could be on more of a downhill slide, if we remain vigilant through the holidays, the most infectious period.”
The Killington Ski Club building is still open to its members, though use of the building is limited to 15 minutes and masks must be worn at all times.
Hughes echoed the governor asking locals to refrain from “license plate shaming” as many out-of-state visitors have a legitimate reason for being up here. Both Scott and Hughes encouraged folks not to prejudge visitors as non-compliant. By way of example, Hughes pointed to a dryland camp he helped run over the summer offering fitness training two days a week.
“We expected five or six kids to enroll — we got 23! We said ‘wow!’” Hughes remembered. He credited the high turnout to new families that had moved up to Killington or who had moved into their second homes for the season.
For its part, Killington Resort announced before the season began that it would not offer any group lessons this season. Only one-on-one or small group ski or snowboard lessons for related parties are currently available. Seasonal programs, like Unleashed and 4241’ Club, were originally going to be available (for those 14-18 and over 18, respectively), but recently the resort indefinitely postponed those as well.
The Vermont Principals’ Association, which oversees all sports in public schools, said it had no additional information on when winter sports might resume.
“We haven’t heard anything,” said VPA Executive Director Jay Nichols, Dec. 7. “We’re in a waiting game.”