With schools resuming in-person instruction, high school sports are already back in session as well, with practices and games already underway.
We asked the three local high school athletic directors — Brock Holley at Calhoun, Matt Swanson at Gordon Central and Brent Mashburn at Sonoraville — how the COVID-19 pandemic has effected high school sports and what precautions are in place when social distancing is impossible.
The following questions and answers were exchanged via email last week.
How has the pandemic changed things in regard to high school athletics?
Holley: Practice and game procedures, cleaning of facilities, and spectator distancing are a couple of items that have changed during the pandemic.
Mashburn: The pandemic has changed all aspects of life, and high school athletics is no exception. There are many new requirements in place that make the day-to-day a little more challenging in terms of creating the safest environment we can for our all involved. I would like to think that we are all a little more appreciative of every opportunity we get to coach or compete as we move forward.
Swanson: The pandemic has changed everything we know about high school athletics. We are taping off seats to ensure social distancing. We are wearing masks while we coach. We are checking temperatures before every practice. We are so schedule oriented in the athletic world that is what has been so different. We are three weeks away from our first football game, usually by this time we are so excited to start a new year. Now we are not even sure if we will have games or if they will be pushed back even further.
Since social distancing is impossible in sports, what sort of precautions are in place at practices and events?
Holley: We are following all safety guidelines from the GHSA. I would say social distancing is naturally easier in some sports compared to others. All sports screen students before practices and games. Coaches are more aware of distancing needs so practice plans have changed to accommodate distancing as much as possible. Masks are encouraged for players and coaches as much as possible.
Mashburn: We have guidelines from the GHSA and state and national health organizations that we work hard to closely follow. Our athletes are screened prior to every practice or contest. Our facilities are sanitized between groups of athletes using them. We limit the amount of time athletes spend in close proximity to one another. Our coaches have done an unbelievable job cleaning and preparing to make it as safe an environment as possible for our athletes. Our athletes have done a great job of adhering to guidelines and wearing face coverings and trying to be good examples within our school. Gordon County Schools has developed guidelines to use when hosting an event. We will limit our attendance to 50% capacity, add additional seating, mark areas for social distancing, restructure where our band and some spectators are allowed to sit, encourage social distancing and wearing of face coverings while attending events, along with various other things. Our approach will be closely monitored and changes will be made as needed.
Swanson: Our coaches are wearing masks when they can’t ensure social distancing. We ask screening questions everyday as well as check temperatures. We sanitize equipment and areas of practice before and after every practice.
What has the feedback from coaches and players been like so far?
Holley: Our coaches and players have taken all new procedures and protocols in stride. They want to play and they are willing to adapt to the current safety guidelines to help make that happen. I’m very proud of our coaches and players for the way they have handled the added safety protocols that are now in place.
Mashburn: We are constantly talking with our coaches about what we can do to improve things with the guidelines we have in place. It can be challenging at times, but our athletes and coaches are passionate about what they do.
Swanson: Our players want to play. They want to get back to being teenagers. We have the best and most supportive coaching staff around. They are doing everything they can to make sure their students and players are healthy. Our students health is our top priority.
How might an altered season (or even a canceled season) impact a senior in regard to college prospects?
Holley: Every situation is different but a shortened or canceled season could certainly impact a senior who has aspirations to play at the next level. Our coaches do an excellent job of promoting our athletes and helping them find the best fit at the collegiate level.
Mashburn: That’s a tough question to answer not being at the college level and understanding how exactly this will affect their decision making. I do believe that we have a group of coaches that regardless of circumstances, will do everything they can to help all deserving athletes reach their goal of playing at the next level.
Swanson: It has a huge impact on our student athletes. If a statewide cancellation does occur I guess it puts all seniors on a level playing field when it comes to recruiting, but we need to look no further than the Heisman Trophy winner last year to see how important one season can be. Joe Burrows was a 5th or 6th round pick before his senior year. After his senior year performance he won the Heisman trophy and was drafted 1st, so I would say one season matters.
What do you think about other school systems and college conferences that have already canceled their seasons?
Holley: I trust the leaders of other school systems and college conferences to make informed decisions for their student-athletes and schools. As I mentioned earlier, every situation is different and it would be impossible for me to judge other situations with limited knowledge of what they are dealing with.
Mashburn: You can’t help but notice what is happening at other places, but our focus has been on our school and what we we need to do to be able to create the safest environment we can at Sonoraville High School. Our coaches and athletes have worked hard, both at their sport and at following guidelines, over the past several months and we are hopeful that they will get an opportunity to compete this season in all sports.
Swanson: My opinion is that it has to be a school by school, geographical decision. We have so many experts giving their opinion, but in the end leaders have to take advice from all people then make a decision on what they believe is in best interest of their students.
What happens if a player who has been actively participating in sports tests positive?
Holley: If a player tests positive or is having symptoms consistent with COVID-19 they are required to remain at home. We then following contract tracing guidelines to identify those individuals who may have had close contact with the individual who tested positive. Individuals who meet the close contact criteria are required to quarantine.
Mashburn: If an athlete tests positive they are removed from all activities immediately and we follow the guidelines set in place through the Gordon County Schools Infectious Disease Plan and guidance from local and state health officials.
Swanson: We have a great plan in place at Gordon County and we follow the step by step protocol set forth by our county.
Has there been any discussion with other schools concerning the measures they are taking since your players will be in close contact with players whom you don’t oversee?
Holley: Yes, I meet with our region athletic directors once a week via Zoom and I have spoken with numerous other coaches and athletic directors around the state. We have protocols in place to communicate with each other in the event a positive case arises after competition with another school.
Mashburn: Our region’s athletic directors have met several times over the past few weeks to discuss how each system plans to handle hosting events and to discuss the latest guidance available to us. I feel very good about the communication with the schools we compete against in Region 6-AAA and us being on the same page in terms of sharing information and the importance of athlete safety.
Swanson: We are constantly having discussions and we have to understand and trust that our competition are doing the same protocols and procedures that GHSA have set forth for all schools.
Anything else you feel readers should know?
Holley: I’d like to publicly thank our coaches, players, and community members for being flexible during this unique time. Calhoun has unbelievable support and I’m proud to work with each of our athletic programs. Dr. Taylor, Dr. Coombe, and our Board of Education have also done a great job of supporting our return to sports. Safety will remain our number one priority and we are looking forward to athletic events this year.
Swanson: There are so many opinions out there about this pandemic. I am not a doctor, I am a teacher. Nothing has changed for me as an educator. For the past 23 years I have always wanted what is best for my students and players. I will do whatever I need to do to protect my students and players. This has not changed due to this pandemic. What has changed is the unknown has been magnified. All we can do is control the controllable and pray for the uncontrollable, because the Lord is the only one that can control the uncontrollable.