Almost a month ago, the UIL put forth a plan to allow schools to begin summer workouts on June 8 in anticipation of a fall season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That came a little over two months after the UIL suspended all spring sports before eventually being forced to cancel the remaining state championships and four days after the National Federation of State High School Association’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee published guidelines for restarting high school sports across the country.
“The NFHS SMAC believes it is essential to the physical and mental wellbeing of high school students across the nation to return to physical activity and athletic competition. The NFHS SMAC recognizes that it is likely that ALL students will not be able to return to – and sustain – athletic activity at the same time in all schools, regions and states. There will also likely be variation in what sports and activities are allowed to be played and held. While we would typically have reservations regarding such inequities, the NFHS SMAC endorses the idea of returning students to school-based athletics and activities in any and all situations where it can be done safely,” a statement read, in part, on the first page of the NFHS booklet.
In the booklet, the NFHS outlines each sport as either low risk, such as track and field, moderate risk, such as volleyball, and high risk, such as football.
Not even a week into summer workouts, the risks of the current pandemic as they pertain to fall sports are showing. West Orange- Stark High School, about 30 minutes east of Beaumont, had to suspend their summer strength and conditioning program after a studentathlete came into contact with someone who has COVID-19. Closer to home, Crystal City ISD, in the Rio Grande Valley about 90 miles from Pleasanton, was set to start their workouts on June 15, but opted to postpone their start at the discretion of their administration. Bishop High School, near Kingsville, suspended their summer workouts after one athlete was exposed to the coronavirus.
“I mean, I think it’s an alarm,” Pleasanton Athletic Director Tab Dumont said. “I mean, because I don’t think anybody truly knows where we’re going with [COVID-19]. I don’t think anybody knows when or if it’s ever going to be over, or if it’s something we’re just going to deal with. It’s hard to tell.”
After three months away from their kids, area coaches know the proverbial dominoes must line up perfectly in order for the fall season to start on time and unaltered later this year. Any more delays to preparation for the fall could put the season in jeopardy.
But the first two weeks of summer workouts have been promising, coaches say. With the UIL set to up weightroom capacity to 50% on Monday, June 22, they feel it’s a sign of hope that the fall season will start on time.
“To me definitely it is [encouraging],” Dumont said. “It’s very encouraging that the coaches are getting to work with the kids. Last week was a very exciting week around here. It was nice to see coaches up and about it was wonderful to see the kids faces, I was up there watching and greeting the kids as they came in for a little bit. It’s it’s a step forward.”
Everything the UIL has done so far has been in good faith that everything will be back to some sense of normal by Aug. 3, when football, volleyball, cross country and tennis teams can practice for the first time. In order to be able to start fall practice on time, the student-athletes must be in shape. In order for the student-athletes to be in peak physical shape, they must be able to go through a full strength and conditioning program. If they miss more time, some coaches worry about the injury risk for their kids.
“It would definitely impact the kids,” said Lori Wilson, Lytle ISD Athletic Director. “If we started up after missing more [time to workout], I think you would be looking at a lot more injuries. Conditioning-wise, the kids wouldn’t be ready. It would be hard to just throw the kids back on the field if we get shut down again.”
Poteet Athletic Director and Head football Coach Darby House echoed Wilson’s sentiment, saying, “If we just jumped into the season without working out for five months, we’d have a lot more injuries, we’d have a bigger chance of kids getting hurt, or, you know, doing things that they just wouldn’t have to deal with if they were in shape.”
But, the plans set forth for the UIL have been detailed and thorough to limit any chance of spreading the virus and possibly set forth a plan to return to play in August. Those plans also are aligned with the guidelines the NFHS.
Workout rosters are almost like plane manifests that must be followed every day — schools are strongly discouraged from allowing athletes to switch from their workout groups. Social distancing guidelines to maintain a distance of six feet apart are in place. Equipment must be sanitized after every use to avoid any possible transmission of COVID-19. Sport-specific drills must be run on air rather than say a receiver running routes against a cornerback on the football field. Locker rooms and shower areas are off-limits, as well.
Right now, that’s all teams can do to do their part to hopefully welcome a regular fall season come August.
“The big thing that UIL, and our Texas High School Coaches Association, tried to stress and I stress it to our staff is, if we’re going to play in the fall and start in August, we have to have a successful summer,” Dumont said. “And that’s not just Pleasanton ISD has to have a successful summer, that’s every surrounding school district. Every surrounding school district in the city, every surrounding school district out of the county and the whole state of Texas has to take care of their kiddos and do this right. And the goal is not to be playing games right now in June and July. The goal was to get started, and be playing in late August, early September.”
Coaches have taken to doing their part with things like following the strict sanitation guidelines laid out by the UIL. After the first week of workouts, it’s still taking some getting used to.
“The safety was our major concern,” Wilson said. “We did a slower approach where we were pretty much all outside. This week, we’ve transitioned a little more inside. Today, it took about an hour after we were done to just clean up. You want to make sure everything is cleaned and wiped down.
“I think the coaching staff did a wonderful job,” Wilson said of her coaches. “I was kind of wary because I didn’t know how many kids we were going to have. We had over 100 kids show up between the boys and the girls.”
But, there are things out of coaches’ control in the fight against the coronavirus, such as the recent spikes in positive cases. The entire state of Texas must be on the same page in order for fall sports to return.
What happens if a school district is shut down to in-person learning due to the virus? What if a player from a team starts showing symptoms before or following a game? Coaches are eager to hear a more in-depth plan of how to operate in the fall if they’re allowed to compete.
“I think it’s very difficult and I think there’s a lot of questions that still are going to have to be answered as we go through the summer, and get closer to that first Monday in August whenever we start football, volleyball, cross country and team tennis,” Dumont said. “I think we’ll have answers by then, but there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered, you know before then.”
“We’ve gotta have it,” House said. “That’s the way I feel, we’ve gotta have it. We need it. … If it doesn’t, we’ll deal with that when it gets here. But if I have anything to do about it, we’re gonna be playing football and volleyball, and running cross country. We’ll be doing that this fall.”