For the first time since March, high school athletes in Pennsylvania are playing sports with their teams.
But things aren’t back to normal or business as usual. And they likely won’t be this fall if games do take place as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Instead, schools are trying to figure out safe ways for athletes to train during a time of incredible uncertainty.
Gov. Tom Wolf gave approval for scholastic sports to begin summer workouts two weeks ago, and the PIAA has required that every school district implement a school-board approved health and safety plan before teams can begin practicing. While some schools have already returned to the field — with many more planning to follow suit over the next week — workouts look much different than they did before the pandemic.
Health screenings before every practice … No shared water coolers … virtually no contact drills … no handshakes, high-fives or spitting.
These new protocols just scratch the surface of what teams need to do to hold workouts right now. For sports like cross country, tennis or golf? They’re very doable. For a sport like football? They’re fundamentally challenging.
“We are trying to get through this together,” New Oxford athletic director Doug Wherley said. “We’re just happy to be back in some capacity. Whatever it takes to make work, we will do.”
The majority of schools in the YAIAA and GameTimePA coverage area have gotten health and safety plans approved by their school boards, with most expecting to begin workouts this week or next. Littlestown was one school that began workouts last week.
On Friday, the PIAA issued a press release in response to the state’s mandate that masks must be worn whenever anyone leaves home. While the order does apply to sports, athletes are “not required to wear face coverings while actively engaged in workouts and competition that prevent the wearing of face coverings.” Health and safety plans must reflect or be updated to reflect the order.
Many of the approved health plans are similar. Area athletic directors said they consulted with their counterparts at other schools while developing plans.
Some schools have different plans for the state’s “green” and “yellow” phases in case counties are moved back to yellow if cases rise throughout the summer. All of Pennsylvania will be green as of Friday.
The links to each school’s approved plan can be found below.
How are workouts being held?
Trying to social distance while playing sports requires much stricter regulations than usual.
All summer workouts are optional, and student-athletes and their parents must sign waivers acknowledging the risk and voluntary aspect of the practices.
Before practice, all students must pass a health screening done by a coach or trainer. Screenings take place at a specific drop-off location designated in advance.
Then come the actual practices.
Right now, most schools are in an acclimation phase since students haven’t been able to work out with coach supervision for a few months, though many have trained on their own.
“We’re gonna take our time and take it slow,” Chambersburg football coach Mark Luther said. “We understand that some of the boys have equipment and able to do things hard, and I’m sure some of them don’t have equipment at home. We sent workouts out, and gave them framework to do what they could do with bodyweight stuff. But we’re not gonna hammer on right off the bat.”
Some schools are focused on conditioning the first few weeks and not using balls or other equipment that could become contaminated. Other schools ask athletes to bring their own balls, or requiring them to be sanitized after every drill.
Most workouts are held outside with the exception of girls’ volleyball and basketball. That means rainy weather will likely lead to canceled workouts, rather than students being moved indoors.
Weight training, an important aspect of many sports like football, is difficult to pull off with these requirements. Littlestown isn’t currently allowing any weight room activities. New Oxford is having groups of 10 in the weight room with other groups using dumbbells outside. Spring Grove is limiting groups to 24 at a time and also planning to do some exercises outside.
Kennard-Dale athletic director Gary McChalicher said the school moved a bulk of its weights to a shed so athletes can lift outside. Exercises like the bench press will use two spotters on each side of the bar rather than one person overhead to eliminate physical contact.
Students need their own water bottles and locker rooms are off limits except for bathroom use. Kennard-Dale is only allowing students to use outside port-o-potties.
“We don’t want kids in tight, confined spaces and we don’t want them using the locker room or weight room as a hangout spot,” McChalicher said. “We are going to do some awesome workouts. We have weights, kettle bells. The parking lot and a hill for cardio drills.”
Some schools like Northeastern and Spring Grove are only listing a gathering limit of 250 in their plans — in accordance with the state’s regulations for the green phase — but with increased distance between athletes. Others require teams to break into smaller “pods” to keep gatherings small.
For example, Littlestown athletic director Jeff Laux said the school’s football team has separated into two groups during workouts, with one at the practice field and another at the stadium. New Oxford is planning to separate its football team into as many as six groups at some points.
Depending on how many fields a school has, this requires strict scheduling so too many athletes aren’t at a facility at once.
“There’s no past precedent here, so we are still trying to learn,” New Oxford’s Wherley said. “We are trying to limit interaction and keep kids spaced out. One group at the stadium, one on a practice field, another on different grass areas.”
Most schools require coaches to wear a mask at all times during practice, though some schools don’t explicitly state that in their health and safety plans.
Athletes don’t have to wear masks during practice, but some schools are requiring them to be worn while waiting to be picked up or when a coach is addressing the team as a group.
“We won’t have a lot of tolerance for (not wearing masks). If they want to be a part of it they’ll wear a mask,” McChalicher said. “I think we’ll have athletes wear the masks if they’re together while a coach speaks to them. They don’t have to wear it while running.”
These types of sessions won’t prepare athletes for games in the fall, but that’s not the intention. The hope for these workouts is to get students adjusted to being on a field together, with the hope that more strides will be taken by the time official practices begin on Aug 17.
Still, coaches and athletes are accustomed to training in the summer, but not accustomed to taking things easy or looking at workouts as voluntary. Athletic directors said they have stressed to coaches and parents that the workouts are optional, and students shouldn’t feel pressured to come.
“This is a case-by-case situation, and we’re letting families know that we support whatever they want to do,” McChalicher said. “Maybe a student has somebody in their home with risk factors. We don’t want coaches pressuring kids to come. We just want kids to have an opportunity to do something and get exercise. The conversations I’ve had with parents have all been positive, but that doesn’t mean everybody feels the same way.”
Added Wherley: “I have talked to parents and coaches. It’s no obligation. If they feel comfortable they are more than welcome. They’re not going to be shunned if they feel uncomfortable coming out.”
How are athletes being checked for symptoms?
When student-athletes arrive for workouts, they will immediately have their temperature taken. If it’s above 100.4 degrees, they will be sent home.
They will also be asked a series of questions to determine if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus. The questions are very similar on a school-to-school basis, but not exactly the same. Most schools are asking student-athletes if they’ve had the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of taste/smell
Other symptoms students could be checked for depending on the school: Runny nose, muscle pain, swelling or rash on toes or fingers. Coaches will also be checked for these symptoms.
Individuals will also be asked if they’ve had close contact with someone who is suspected of having COVD-19 or has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
If a student-athlete or coach answers “yes” to any questions or symptoms, they will not be allowed to practice and sent home.
These precautions raise another question: How will coaches and trainers know whether a student-athlete is being honest? Especially after a canceled spring season, with kids itching to get back to sports as soon as possible.
The athletic directors interviewed for this story said they are stressing the importance of honestly not just to the students, but the parents who live with them and drive them to practice.
“In the letter I sent to parents. I talked about the sense of community,” McChalicher said. “We need to have each others’ backs. If you think there has been an incident, you need to be forthright. We are in this together and need to be honest with each other.”
Added Spring Grove’s Greg Wagner: “The potential of programs being shut down if there is a confirmed case is very real. We want to be with our students as much as possible, for as long as possible. That means that everyone must report symptoms and not attend activities if they are not feeling well.”
Most schools have included in their health and safety plans that students will be sent home if they show symptoms during practice.
But while a player vomiting during practice will be an obvious decision, a player coughing or sneezing or being out of breath could be a judgement call for a coach — especially with some kids having not consistently exercised outside in months.
Some athletic directors, like Wherley, said symptoms would have to be excessive for a player to be sent home after a screening. Others are setting stricter rules.
“I’ve told my coaches and athletes, ‘We’re not messing around,'” Littlestown’s Laux said. “Don’t risk it. Even if they say its allergies, you need to get them home, and we can deal with it after that. This is not something to mess around with.”
What happens if athletes test positive for COVID-19?
Unlike college or professional sports, high school players won’t be tested by schools for COVID-19.
Many schools will require players who are sent home for exhibiting symptoms to bring a doctors note confirming they are healthy before they return to practice.
And if a student-athlete does test positive for COVID-19?
All schools have regulations in place for this situation. Many are using these guidelines for an athlete to return to practice if they’ve been tested:
If tested for COVID-19: No fever (without medication) and symptoms have improved and two negative tests in a row, at least 24 hours apart.
If tested positive for COVID-19, but no symptoms are present: 10 days after testing or two negative tests in a row, at least 24 hours apart.
If unable to be tested for COVID-19: After 10 days of self-isolation from onset of symptoms and 72 hours symptoms free without medications.
Student-athletes will need doctor’s confirmation to return to workouts. If a student-athlete is exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19, they are supposed to report it to their school and self-quarantine for 14 days.
Many schools will work with the CDC and state Department of Health to use contact tracing. Other students who have been exposed to someone who tested positive could be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
So one player testing positive but being exposed to teammates could threaten to end a team’s workouts shortly after they returned to the field.
Plenty of schools do not explicitly state in their plans whether a sport will be shut down for a period of time if one player tests positive. But some do. Littlestown’s plans state team activities will cease for 14 days in that situation.
McChalicher said any Kennard-Dale team would enter a similar quarantine phase if a player tests positive.
“We are talking about voluntary workouts. It doesn’t need to happen,” McChalicher said. “If a kid legit has COVID and they came in contact with others, we are going to take a break.”
With so many precautions in place and the prospect of teams shutting down workouts for weeks at a time after a positive test, it could be very difficult for some sports to hold fall seasons. The current rules are only in place for the summer, meaning the PIAA will need another plan for a potential fall season to address things like transportation and fan attendance.
With schools still trying to figure out if in-person learning will be possible this fall, athletic directors are trying to look at the bigger picture.
“It’s a concern, but we just missed out on an entire spring season. That was a loss,” said Laux of teams potentially being quarantined for two weeks. “If we play one game this fall, that’s a win. We need to do anything we can to make the best of this. We can’t completely eradicate it, we can only do our best.
“This is beyond sports. We want to get kids back in school come fall. That’s the goal.”
With college and professional sports still largely up in the air around the country, no one has a direct answer on whether a fall sports season will take place — or what it will look like if it does.
“It’s going to be wait-and-see mode,” McChalicher said. “Things from a societal perspective could look different a month from now. They could look better or worse. It will depend where we are at as a society.
“We are just trying to do the right things. There is a much bigger picture here.”
Schools with approved health and safety plans
Schools yet to be approved
Delone Catholic: In the process of finalizing plan and starting practices “very soon.”
South Western: Hoping to have plan in front of board “in the near future.”
York Suburban: Begin workouts by July 14 pending board approval
Susquehannock: Presenting plan to be approved July 9
York High: Did not respond to requests about the school’s plan
Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, email@example.com or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.
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