High school sports teams add safety measures to combat COVID

By Steve Blackledge, The Columbus Dispatch

Posted August 7, 2020 at 5:30 AM

Indications suggest that high school sports — at least some of them — will return this month, but not without varying levels of anxiety by athletes, their parents, coaches and school administrators over the possibility of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

Gov. Mike DeWine and health officials will have the ultimate say in who can participate in and attend the first school-versus-school competitions since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports worldwide in mid-March.

Through conversations with health experts, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has communicated to schools a detailed list of policy modifications and safety precautions specific to each sport.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, football is the only fall sport listed in the “higher risk” category. Soccer, volleyball, field hockey and tennis are considered “moderate risk” and cross country and golf “lower risk.”

A mandate from the governor’s office, however, deems football, soccer and field hockey to be “contact sports” currently not permitted to scrimmage or play against other schools without each team member, coach and trainer producing a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of each competition. OHSAA officials are working with the governor and the Ohio Department of Health to lift the edict, which essentially would make playing those sports impossible.

Close contact between athletes and the sheer number of players involved makes football the riskiest sport. The coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets.

“No one has played football yet during COVID-19, so there’s really no data to refer to,” said Dr. Randy Wroble, an orthopedic surgeon who serves as chairman of the OHSAA’s Joint Advisory Committee on Sports Medicine.

“The obvious risk with football is that the kids are in close proximity, breathing on each other. Offensive and defensive linemen are virtually face to face at the snap and are engaged for several seconds, so they’re the highest risk group. While it might be cost prohibitive for some schools, a plastic face shield — at least for the linemen — would be helpful.”

While he and his players are taking proper precautions during camp, Dublin Scioto coach Karl Johnson said he remains concerned.

“Once you have an actual case detected, keeping other kids from getting it is a big obstacle,” he said. “As we’ve seen in Major League Baseball, it wouldn’t take much to shut down the entire team for two weeks. When they leave our facility, the kids still have to negotiate social distancing and other precautions the rest of the day. That’s easier said than done for a teenager.”

Many teams are training at a low contact level to enhance their chances of starting their seasons later in August.

“Safety of the children should be the No. 1 priority of everyone,” Grandview boys soccer coach James Gerdes said. “The virus will certainly alter the way the game is played to some degree. You have to more conscious and aware of players around you.”

Wroble doesn’t consider soccer players particularly vulnerable.

“Two players going up for a header might be a risk, but they’re only there for a fraction of a second,” he said. “The big factor to consider is distance multiplied by time.”

Columbus Academy 30th-year field hockey coach Anne Horton has talked at length with her players about social distancing, even during games.

“Incidental contact is a part of the game that can’t be avoided, but for the most part players tend to be at least a stick’s length away,” she said. “There is a densely populated space near the goal cage, but defensive players are allowed to wear shields now, so that will help.”

Golf competition began Wednesday, with most coaches taking greater precautions.

“My wife, Cindy, and I are running the Mid-State League tournament, and we’re probably going overboard with rules to make sure everyone stays safe,” Bexley boys coach Jimmy Ryan said. “No shared carts, no touching the flag stick or another guy’s ball, no range work or putting beforehand, and we’re specifying which spectators can attend. There won’t be an awards ceremony. We’re telling them to walk off the course and go straight to your van.”

Cross country last week was downgraded to a noncontact sport by the Ohio Department of Health, but fans may still see changes.

“Avoiding contact is first and foremost on everybody’s minds, both at practice and at meets,” Hilliard Davidson girls coach Nate King said. “The biggest risks occur at the start of races and at the finish when people are clumped together. There are a lot of discussions taking place about possibly widening courses, spacing things out or staggering the start and using multiple finishing corrals. It will be a unique challenge for us.”

Although tennis is perhaps the safest sport of all, coaches are taking the better safe than sorry approach.

“We’re having kids put their names on their cans of balls, and only they are allowed to touch them when serving,” Pickerington Central coach Kelli Rings said. “During the spring, the (United States Tennis Association) sent out advice that we’re adhering to.”

The chief safety factor in volleyball involves many players touching the same ball numerous times on volleys, but the use of hand sanitizers and disinfectants will be mandatory.

Wroble emphasized that the odds of children and adolescents contracting the coronavirus — and more specifically getting seriously ill — are slim, but the biggest concern is an asymptomatic carrier unknowingly infecting others, including older and more vulnerable people.

“Some kids think they’re immune to this, but make no mistake about it: Coaches and athletic trainers are taking this very seriously. They don’t want to mess with it or have it potentially wreck their season.”

State mandate leaves high schools with the bill when it comes to testing

by Chris Renkel & Stephanie Kuzydym, WKRC | Tuesday, August 4th 2020

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WKRC) - As the Friday Night Lights draw closer to taking center stage, high school football teams across the country are putting their players to the test as they prepare for the upcoming season. But in the era of COVID-19, tests could be what keeps some high school teams from taking the field when the season officially kicks off.

"Basically the testing makes fall sports a non-starter for us," said Lockland High School Head Athletic Trainer Kim Barber-Foss.

Under the current mandate from the Ohio Department of Health, in order for teams to take the field in a contact sport like football, players, coaches and all game personnel would have to have a negative coronavirus test at least 72 hours before the competition begins.

The average cost of one of these tests is roughly $125.00 per test, which could leave schools on the hook for thousands of dollars per week in testing fees. Add up the cost of a 10-week football season and school districts could be forced to spend millions just to field a team.

"We just do not have the financial and economic resources to support testing that many athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, support staff every week," said Barber-Foss. "At a school like Lockland, we have to supply our resources where it matters most, and that’s with these schools in the classroom and that’s with these educational resources."

On Aug. 1, the state of Ohio mandate that requires testing and prohibits competition between schools was extended. During Gov. Mike DeWine's Tuesday press conference, the governor's office attempted to shed some light on the issue promising a more comprehensive return-to-play plan is in the works.

"There has been some confusion about this in that the renewal of the order somehow represents the plan to play this fall. I want you to know that’s not the case," said Ohio Lt. Governor Jon Husted. "We’re still working with the Ohio High School Athletic Association to finalize that plan and we’re still considering many options."

But until the state order is lifted, school districts like Lockland are left with uncertainty. And as practices continue, student athletes and coaches could be preparing to play in games their schools simply can't afford.

"So, I think at some point, they need to make a firm decision," said Barber-Foss. "I think it’s very stressful for everybody that’s involved. Kids and support staff."