On the national level, several doctors, epidemiologists and scientists have suggested that there may be a surge of COVID-19 cases this fall or winter. This possibility raises the following question – Are you better prepared than when schools and athletic programs initially became aware of this health problem last March?
Throughout the summer, there were constant changes and spikes in the number of cases in some areas of the country. Almost daily, new state directives and guidelines were issued.
“The past five months have been the most challenging of my career,” stated Doug Marchetti, athletic director at Norwalk (Connecticut) High School. “It was extremely difficult, and I had to adapt to a ‘take-it-one-day-at-a-time’ approach. No matter how hard you planned, you had to continually adjust.”
Some schools around the country started the fall with remote instruction, others elected to use a hybrid or a blended format of face-to-face and virtual teaching, and there are schools that are dividing their student body and alternating days in the building. In addition, the academic approach that a school district takes may also affect athletic practice sessions, travel and games.
Marchetti points out that depending on how the academic day is structured, a lot of questions have to be answered.
Among those are how students are going to get to school for practice if virtual learning is being used, and how to devise creative and comprehensive plans for social distancing in the locker rooms, and sanitizing the facilities and the equipment. He said none of this is easy, but with everyone – coaches, administrators, custodians and transportation personnel – working together, it has to be done to keep the athletes and coaches safe.
When considering the possibility of a surge in the fall or winter, Jim Quatromoni, athletic administrator at Hingham (Massachusetts) High School, believes that he will be ready.
“The last couple of months I learned to work more effectively within the chaos,” Quatromoni said. “And in our positions, there are challenges even when things are running smoothly. Basically, the approach at Hingham High School is to work as if nothing is going to change, until something does. And then we will make the logical, prudent adjustments.”
Quatromoni points out that the locker rooms at Hingham are not designed to handle social distancing. As a result, bathrooms and perhaps an unscheduled classroom will serve as auxiliary areas and bus transportation will be cut to 33 percent capacity.
There is an estimate by the area athletic directors’ group that there may be a 20 percent drop in the number of participants on most teams and, therefore, it is uncertain if additional buses will be needed. It is also possible that the number of teams and squad size may have to be limited to provide a safer environment.
At Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton, Colorado, Matt Heckel, the school’s athletic director, also pointed out that his school will limit bus transportation to a maximum of 25 players and coaches. Providing buses poses another hurdle in that the district lacks enough bus drivers and this was a problem prior to the pandemic. Heckel said the booster club is trying to help with carpools even though this involves liability concerns, so currently there is no perfect solution.
Since football has been moved to February in Colorado and the winter season will begin January 4, the current plan at Dakota Ridge High School is to close locker rooms to golf, softball and cross country, which are scheduled for the fall.
Heckel said that for the winter and spring sports, “We will try to come up with a creative solution for those sports, which might include using the locker rooms in ‘stages’ for teams and adjusting the start times for practice sessions.”
Marchetti and Quatromoni said the real key for everything involved with the pandemic or possible surge is good, effective communication. They said the coaching staff must be kept informed of the latest developments, guidance and important directives. They said it is also important to inform and reassure parents and athletes, and this effort of staying in touch can and should be done by both the coaches and athletic administrators.
Marchetti points out that the ‘fear of the unknown’ needs to be addressed and support for coaches who have worked hard to prepare for their season should be emphasized.
“Parent feedback expressing appreciation has been tremendous and we need their understanding and support,” Marchetti said.
This can only be achieved through open communication, and the pandemic has caused Marchetti to reflect on his own communication style.
“Keeping all parties ‘in the loop’ and working together for the benefit of the athletes and coaches is critically important,” Marchetti said. “It does take a village to keep our program going forward.”
In order to provide helpful and productive communication, it is important to use as many mediums as possible to reach constituents within a program, especially athletes, parents and coaches. These vehicles may include the school’s website, Facebook page, Twitter, e-mail blasts, Zoom and Google Meetings and anything else available, and use as many of them as possible to make your efforts more efficient and effective.
Similar to professional and college sports, there is also the issue of whether to limit the number of spectators at high school contests or host games with no fans. At Dakota Ridge High School, the county board of health has mandated a 125-person limit.
“In football, we might use a ticket service in which we offer two tickets per player and then open it up for our students if there are any left,” Heckel said, “but we’ll see if the school board considers this for a solution.”
At Hingham High School, custodians will disinfect the locker rooms nightly and the bus drivers will do the same after each trip. In addition, coaches have been charged with sanitizing the equipment after practice sessions, including soccer balls and footballs.
“Our district has been amazingly supportive – purchasing cleaning equipment, supplies and thermometers so that we provide the safest environment possible,” Heckel said.
It is not an understatement to suggest that dealing with COVID-19 and a possible surge is challenging. The unknown possible developments and how they might affect the future can be extremely concerning. The only workable solution, therefore, is that athletic administrators need to stay abreast of the developments, adjust accordingly, refer to the NFHS guidelines prepared by the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, communicate effectively and provide positive leadership.
Dr. David Hoch is a former athletic director at Loch Raven High School in Towson, Maryland (Baltimore County). He assumed this position in 2003 after nine years as director of athletics at Eastern Technological High School in Baltimore County. He has 24 years experience coaching basketball, including 14 years on the collegiate level. Hoch, who has a doctorate in sports management from Temple (Pennsylvania) University, is past president of the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association, and he formerly was president of the Maryland State Coaches Association. He has had more than 700 articles published in professional magazines and journals, as well as four textbook chapters. He is the author of a book entitled Blueprint for Better Coaching. Hoch is a member of the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.