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August 11, 2020 • Athletic Administration

Ready to Return: A Snapshot Into 3 Schools Attempting To Resume Athletic Activities

With schools and organizations rearing to resume athletic activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic — with some having already begun playing live games — ensuring the safety of coaches, student-athletes and staff members is priority number one for athletic administrators. 

Following mass moratoriums, cancellations, postponements, and stoppages of all kinds in light of the viral pandemic, the process of resuming athletics has been staggered across the country with different regions at different stages. 

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) released a series of guidelines and recommendations for its 51-member state high school organizations to consider back on May 21 as schools prepared for the reopening of high school athletics. And much like the White House’s guidelines to reopening, the NFHS’s recommendation consists of three phases that should be reached until a full return to sports while splitting all high school sports into three categories based on risk level. 

Low-risk sports are defined by the NFHS as “sports that can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors.” Examples of that include running events like cross country, individual swimming, and golf.

Moderate-risk sports are defined as “sports that involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants or intermittent close contact or group sports or sports that use equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants.” Examples include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, ice hockey, field hockey, tennis, swimming relays, and girls’ lacrosse.

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Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

High-risk sports are defined as “sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and a high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.” Examples include wrestling, football, boys’ lacrosse, competitive cheer, and dance.

Based on those guidelines, CDC and federal recommendations, as well as guidance from state and local officials, athletic administrators have been tasked with moving forward and creating a set of safety protocols and, in many cases, enhancing their sanitization and bacteria control measures that have already been in place. 

Many colleges and universities have resumed on-campus, voluntary strength and conditioning sessions with the NCAA Division 1 Council allowing student-athletes to resume activities on June 1. And the results, so far, have been mixed. On June 12, just 11 days after resuming voluntary workouts, the University of Houston athletic department once again suspended all activities after six student-athletes from varying sports tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report from ESPN. Another report from USA Today noted that eight Alabama football players have tested positive, 28 student-athletes from Clemson University tested positive, and 30 from the LSU football team were recently quarantined due to either testing positive or coming in contact with someone who had. 

But, again, the results have varied. Take the University of Kansas, for example. The Jayhawks football team has conducted 86 tests on student-athletes and 110 more on staff members in the first month of resuming activities and only one player tested positive. The University of Iowa reported only three positive results compared to 343 negative tests. 

To defy the old adage, what is good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. Below is a look into three schools from three different states to see where they are in the process of resuming athletics in their respective regions. 

Massachusetts

In the Bay State, there’s plenty of athletic directors operating on military time — hurry up and wait. 

“I think we’ve been one of the slowest states in the nation for reopening. I think we were the last state to reopen golf courses,” Neil Murphy, administrator of athletics at Sandwich (MA) High School. “We’re definitely behind a lot of other states. The powers that be are being very cautious.” 

Though Massachusetts entered “Phase 3” of the state’s reopening plan on July 1, when summer leagues for baseball and softball can be resumed to a degree, Sandwich High School already had begun the steps of setting up a strength and conditioning off-season camp for its student-athletes. 

For student-athletes in grades seven through 12, as well as any school district staff, could sign up for the Blue Knights Summer Strength & Conditioning Camp with its athletic trainer and strength & conditioning coach, Jillian DeCuffa. The camp focuses on strength and conditioning, speed and agility, flexibility and mobility, reactive and land mechanics, and injury prevention. 

“We had lots of hurdles to clear, with every decision having to follow the guidelines from our governor, our local guidelines, and be approved by our town’s Board of Health department,” Murphy said. “We’re trying our best to put our kids in the best position to succeed while also being concerned about their social and mental health. We’re doing the best we can.” 

The camp takes place four days a week through August 20 with sessions taking place on its outdoor field turf and indoor gymnasium. Groups of 10 are permitted provided they can maintain adequate social distancing, equipment will be cleaned between each session in addition to nightly sanitizing sessions from the schools’ facilities department. From 7 AM to 5 PM, five one-hour sessions will take place, alternating from the gymnasium to turf and back to the gymnasium. 

Though masks are not required during physical activity if they are socially distanced, everyone in attendance is required to have some sort of face-covering on them. And Murphy noted that regular hand washing, either with soap and water or hand sanitizer, must be done before and after each session. 

High school students have a $75 fee, while middle school students have a $50 fee, and district staff has a $25 fee — all of whom have to be cleared physically before taking part in the camp. In order to be cleared the athletics department must have a valid copy of an updated physical. 

“We’ve been living in a land of hypotheticals for the last three months or so, we have to have a plan for everything despite not having a ton of flexibility,” Murphy said. “It’s an unprecedented situation and definitely difficult to navigate.” 

North Carolina

The Tar Heel State was allowed to resume athletic activities on June 15. Though that was the start date, it wasn’t mandatory for schools to start up right away. Gastonia County Schools in North Carolina, for example, chose the wait-and-see approach. 

“The NCHSAA [North Carolina High School Athletic Association] gave each local education agency the opportunity to weigh in and choose that date or wait until a later date to reopen,” Chad Duncan, Gastonia’s assistant athletic director said. 

The reason to hold back on reopening was fairly simple in the eyes of Duncan. They needed more personal protective equipment and supplies in order to properly keep their students and faculty safe. At the time of speaking with Coach & Athletic Director in mid-June, Duncan was awaiting the shipment of extra supplies like non-contact infrared thermometers, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves, and disinfectant wipes among others. 

“That was probably the main reason we held off,” Duncan said. 

Though the NCHSAA put forth the June 15 deadline, the other reason Gastonia held off was due to education. Duncan wanted to not only absorb the guidelines the NCHSAA put forth, but also create educational videos and instructions to release district-wide so that coaches, student-athletes, and parents could be informed and protected. 

Duncan added that the NCHSAA has also provided a waiver for in-state schools to utilize — covering the basics while each separate school can add literature as needed. He noted that the county has been working with the nearby Caromont Hospital to add to the given state protocols. While the county just north of Gastonia, Lincoln County, began on June 15, but Gastonia decided to wait until July 6. 

When Gastonia does resume athletics among its 10 area high schools, the protocols and limitations will vary facility to facility and school to school. Not having a one-size-fits-all solution was another reason why Duncan waited to reopen. Outside venues are limited to 25 people, including student-athletes, coaches, and trainers. Inside activities can have no more than 10 people, with guidance given of being in specific pods of five or so, and workout in those same groups every time. 

Before the resumption of athletics, the Gastonia County coaches, like so many around the country, stayed in contact with their student-athletes virtually and provided at-home workout advice. Duncan added that he’s been in regular contact with his fellow in-state athletic directors to share ideas and advice in an unprecedented time. 

“I’m very thankful to have a network of other ADs in the state and share what’s available,” Duncan said. “Our coaches have stayed in communication as much as they can with their student-athletes. Our student-athletes and parents also understand these guidelines. Hopefully, if we work together to get through this we will have a fall season.”

Iowa

While nearly every state outright canceled the spring sports season in the wake of COVID-19, the Hawkeye State opted for a postponement of such high school sports like baseball and softball. So when Iowa governor Kim Reynolds lifted the temporary ban on the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) and the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union (IHSGAC), its spring high school season was set to take place. 

As Iowa was not hit with the first wave of infections like many states in the northeast, the state was in a better position to reopen. And that was much to the delight of coaches and players alike. On June 1, when the temporary ban was lifted by Governor Reynolds, one high school softball team “gathered in a socially distant circle and counted down the seconds to 12:01 AM and threw their gloves in the air in celebration of the first known high school practice in nearly three months,” accord to an article on ESPN. 

The high school state championships in baseball were set for August 1, just nine days before the scheduled start of football practice in Iowa. But as the IHSAA soon found out, being first isn’t always what matters most. According to an article from The Gazette on June 22, five Iowa high school baseball teams have suspended its seasons due to an influx of positive COVID-19 cases within the program just three weeks after the start of the new season. 

Aplington-Parkersburg, Iowa Falls-Alden, Le Mars Gehlen, Woodbine, and Dubuque Wahlert all reported positive test results, according to the IHSAA, and have shut down its season for two weeks for the recommended 14-day quarantine. 

Despite the shut down of those teams, IHSAA executive director Tom Keating told The Gazette he feels things have gone well overall so far. With many states and sports organizations keeping a mindful eye on the progress of Iowa baseball and softball, the IHSAA knows they want to set the right precedence for other schools in resuming athletics safely. 

“With the number of programs playing, the number of games that have been played, the number of practices we’ve had, I think we’re pleased that things are where they are,” Keating told The Gazette. “We feel bad for the programs that have been impacted, but I’m not sure we can tie those directly back to their team interaction.”