Jourdanton senior Payton Gonzales was excited entering the week of Sept. 4.
The Indians had state power Calallen coming to town and the senior defensive back wanted to play in the game. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the opportunity.
He found out he potentially could’ve been exposed to the coronavirus and had to quarantine for two weeks. That meant he had to miss one of the biggest regular season games in his career.
He watched the game with his mother inside the bed of his truck, socially distanced from everyone outside of Indian Stadium as Jourdanton fell 56-35 to Calallen.
Missing the game was pretty much devastating for Gonzales. He didn’t know what to do when he got the news he couldn’t suit up.
“I feel like it took away from my senior year,” Gonzales said. “But at the same time, everybody needs to know to follow precautions at all times because it can happen to any one of us.
“I froze. I was speechless. I’ve been planning on this game since the day they released that we’re going to play in it and just, I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do.”
Gonzales wanted to do all he could to support his teammates despite not being able to suit up. After the game, he asked his mom to wait before they left as the anguish of the loss washed over him as if he had been on the field like he has for Jourdanton his previous three years on varsity.
“I think what just really broke my heart was Friday. You know, I was not against going to the game, but I know that made it harder on both of us being there,” said Candi Myers, Payton’s mom. “You have to sit outside and watch this game from there and watch his teammates and be like, ‘what’s going on? What, can we do from here?’ There’s nothing that he could do from there. And it was just really heartbreaking for me to watch that.”
Gonzales’ quarantine was simply a preventative measure since he was potentially exposed to COVID-19 and never tested positive for the virus. But it’s one facet to navigating protocols that have challenged schools throughout the state.
The UIL mandates that anyone not actively practicing or playing in a competition must wear a mask. Fans in the stands are required to wear masks in accordance with Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-29.
Jourdanton Head Coach and Athletic Director Darrell Andrus has to frequently remind kids to stay six feet apart as much as possible. When that’s not possible, his thunderous voice rings out to remind his team to put their masks on.
Andrus, much like many people, doesn’t like wearing masks. However, he loves sports more. So, he’ll make sure his teams understand the sacrifice they have to make to play the games they love.
“You know, it’s been very difficult. I think the hardest thing is, you know, the mask and trying to keep them worn correctly at all times,” Andrus said. “And that’s not just with our students and our student athletes, but with our spectators as well. As you know, at times, they’re not comfortable. It’s obviously extremely hot in the stands or, you know, just not fun covering up your mouth and your nose.
“We’ve said it since Aug. 3 that we’re gonna try to do whatever it takes to let these kids be able to play and, you know, some of the things we’re having to do are frustrating and difficult.”
Masks are just the tip of the iceberg, though.
Flyers and stickers reminding fans to wear face masks and practice good social distancing litter stadiums as fans file in, though fans aren’t as numerous as they used to be. Stadiums are allowed a max capacity of 50% if social distancing can be followed at that percent, according to the UIL. Most stadiums are allowing less than 50% to ensure they’re meeting the protocols. Traveling bands and cheerleaders aren’t allowed at some stadiums.
It’s all a weird sight for the pageantry of Texas high school football.
“Well, you know, the nice thing is, at least we’re playing football and we’re able to practice and, and work the kids and play games on Friday nights,” Pleasanton Head Coach Stephen Liska said. “But yeah, there’s a lot of different hoops to jump through these days.”
Yet, practice makes perfect. While none of the coaches in the area have ever had to deal with protocols like this, some have gotten a crash course in implementing safe protocols to let the season go on.
In the summer, every school in the Pleasanton Express coverage area, except for McMullen County, either opted to or were forced to shut down their summer strength and conditioning programs as cases started spiking.
Jourdanton was forced to shut down after a positive test within their program on June 23 and, on Monday, Sept. 14, Andrus confirmed a positive case within his program, but there was no traceable close contact with anyone, allowing operations to carry on as planned. Pleasanton halted their practices for 12 days after a member of their football team had a lab-confirmed positive test.
Close contact, as defined by the UIL and Texas Education Agency, is “being directly exposed to infectious secretions,” such as being coughed on or droplets from talking, or “being within six feet for a largely uninterrupted or sustained extended contact period, throughout the course of a day, of approximately 15 minutes.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, there is no proof that the coronavirus can be transmitted through sweat.
Per UIL guidelines, which mirror TEA’s guidelines, schools do not have to shut down for a positive test. That is left up to the individual school district’s on a case-by-case basis.
But the crash course in navigating a pandemic like we’ve never seen has given programs like Pleasanton a chance to refine their protocols to ensure they’re doing their part to let the season go on uninterrupted.
“Really, I mean, we were doing everything that we thought we were supposed to do, you know,” Liska said, adding they had to adjust their personal mask protocols following the August shutdown to make their athletes wear masks more frequently. “When it was taken away [during fall camp], it was shocking. ‘Oh, my goodness, here we go. Is it going to be a weekly effect? How’s this going to happen the rest of the way?’ We pulled our belt and tightened it a little tighter and said, ‘Alright, let’s go. If we want a season, these are things we’ve got to do,’ and, you know, kind of zeroed in more in that aspect.”
In order for a coach or player to return after COVID, there are a number of things that need to happen.
The UIL says any individual confirmed or suspected of having the coronavirus can return to play after “at least one day (24 hours) have passed since recovery (resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications); the individual has improvement in symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.” Anyone with a confirmed positive test must also have clearance from a physician in order to get back on the field.
The enhanced protocols have also helped alleviate some angst to whether the season can be completed, though coaches added they’re well aware the status of the season could change at the drop of a hat.
“You know, I think everything we’re doing, we’re doing the best we can and we’re doing well,” Liska said. “I mean, I don’t think I feel more comfortable yet because it’s still out there, because there’s cases still popping up here and there, unfortunately.”