If any positives can emerge from a pandemic, one might be the further realization of just how important the athletics, fitness and recreation industries are to our collective physical and mental wellbeing. Most professionals were more than willing to shutter their storefronts and sacrifice entire playing seasons as the nation came to grips with COVID-19, but there's no denying the deep sense of loss inherent to that process — feelings exacerbated by the months of forced inactivity and isolation that followed.
It's no wonder the desire to get back to business is so strong.
Now comes the challenging work of reopening. With renewed commitment to customer service and care, industry leaders are re-examining the operational status quo like never before — and finding safer ways to deliver the most coveted of end products: good health.
These pages represent an overview of progress being made by organizations and individuals alike during this unpredictable period of transition in athletics, fitness and recreation.
One of the challenges with coordinating a national pandemic response is that its impact varies from place to place — even within the same state.
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Still, states are doing their best to coordinate plans for returning to high school sports with guidance from entities such as the National Federation of State High School Associations, but also under the direction of state and local governments in consultation with public health experts.
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NFHS guidelines specify recommendations for health screenings, group size limitations, facility cleaning, physical contact and athletic equipment outlined in phases — the idea being that as the crisis fades, restrictions can be loosened. However, given the fluidity of the situation and the rights of each state and state high school association to govern itself, high school athletic directors may have a lot of blanks to fill in as we head toward the fall sports season.
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Dwain Jenkins is one such athletic director. Besides acting as the AD at Lutcher High School in Louisiana, Jenkins is also the head football coach and president of the Louisiana Football Coaches Association.
According to Jenkins, the state of Louisiana's plan for reopening has been a joint effort between the Louisiana High School Activities Association and the state's departments of education and health. While the state's guidelines spell out the basics — such as social distancing, hygiene and sanitization best practices — they've also provided high schools with a list of high-risk activities, and suggestions for how to modify or adapt those activities. In Louisiana, basketball, football, lacrosse, soccer, wrestling and marching band were identified as high-risk activities, and thus will require schools to change how they operate.
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Using basketball as an example, Jenkins says that while additional precautions apply, basketball athletes are limited in the kinds of practicing they can do. "You can open up the gyms, kids can go in there and shoot, they can do individual drills, but no scrimmaging, no game-like conditions."
Preparing for a season under these rules presents a significant logistical challenge. Not only must coaches and student-athletes consider limits on drills, they must do so in groups with total participation capped. Louisiana's phased approach caps groups at 10, 25 and 50 in phases one, two and three, respectively.
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In practice, that means scheduling time in each athletic facility for each of Lutcher's teams. "All of our coaches in all of our sports and activities had to put in a request for summer activities," says Jenkins. "We've put together our master schedule. Each facility has its own base schedule for it, with time limits to be able to use it."
Jenkins says that during the phase two rollout, groups of student-athletes will rotate into the high school's athletic facilities on a rolling schedule. For example, the weight room will be open from about 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The schedule will allow for 20 student-athletes (and up to five staff) to rotate into the weight room for 45 minutes at a time, with 30-minute breaks in between. Those breaks will provide student-athletes time to warm-up and undergo health screening, while coaches sanitize the weight room.
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Jenkins admits that uncertainty remains for how schools will return to athletics. Among the things he's most concerned with is transportation — especially if bus capacity is limited due to social distancing requirements — and whether extreme protocols would place a burden on high schools. "Not many high schools would be able to afford it if they had to test kids weekly," he says.
Despite that, Jenkins, like coaches across the country, is just eager to work with student-athletes again.
"It's not about the games. It's about the time that you can spend with those kids and be able to mentor and invest in their lives to make them better people," says Jenkins. "We've missed out on that for the last three months, so just to be able to interact with them on a daily basis is what I'm really excited about being able to do again. We'll figure the other stuff out as it comes."
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "High Schools coordinate complicated reopening plans." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.