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"You can't create a bubble": Texas high schools struggle to keep COVID out of sports

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 7/3/2020 By Mark Dent, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The NBA, aspiring to host a bubble season in Orlando, can’t get away from the coronavirus despite having billionaire owners and millionaire players and a 113-page rulebook stuffed with health protocols. College athletic directors, who expressed confidence a few weeks ago about the safety of football players on mostly empty campuses, are now thinking hard about delaying the sport until the spring. The MLS, attempting a separate Orlando bubble, is finding that even the bubble isn’t safe, with FC Dallas’ entire team and staff placed in isolation after several of them tested positive after their arrival in Florida.

So where does that leave Texas high schools? They have limited budgets, limited testing measures and far less control. “You can’t create a bubble,” said Anthony Criss, the football coach at Arlington Sam Houston. “They’re children.”

And so far, after starting voluntary summer workouts on June 8 under strict safety guidelines, hoping to gauge the possibility of playing games in the fall, high schools have discovered the difficulty of sports in a pandemic, especially with a fraction of the resources of professional and college programs.

This week, the UIL recommended all workouts statewide be postponed from July 3 to July 13 to reduce coronavirus spread. The recommendation came after many high schools made the same decision on their own, unable to make it through the month of June. At least 200 schools, from North Texas to the Valley, suspended workouts on at least a temporary basis in June, with many of those suspensions extending into the middle of July or indefinitely. All of the high schools in the Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston school districts announced they were shutting down before the UIL made its recommendation.

Of the districts in Texas’ five biggest cities, Fort Worth has been the only one to not announce a similar suspension, although it had planned to stop activities next week to give coaches a break. Todd Vesely, the district athletic director, said they have not had to stop workouts because of coronavirus at any of the campuses. “I really don’t have an answer to it,” Vesely said. “What I can say is that this has taken extensive planning and meticulous implementation at the campus level.”

Weeks before the UIL let workouts begin, Fort Worth coaches and athletic coordinators were planning ahead. They created a screening system for athletes when they arrive on campus. They require social distancing at all times and split athletes into small groups. In between drills, athletes and coaches wear masks.

At Burleson Centennial, athletes and coaches arrive at staggered times. They walk in through different entrances according to their last names. No water fountains are turned on, and an athletic trainer has to fill up the kids’ water bottles. Burleson Centennial football coach Kyle Geller said he has had to remind himself to be less hands-on during drills. He normally likes to display proper form to athletes when they’re lifting weights.

But Burleson Centennial still had to stop workouts for a few days over concerns athletes may have caught coronavirus after attending a vigil. The school is not alone in finding the virus can’t be stopped, particularly in the 22-plus hours the teens are on their own after the workouts. An Arlington Martin football player tested positive in mid-June. Southlake Carroll has had at least three athletes test positive.

Criss’ Arlington Sam Houston team has not had a positive coronavirus test. But if high schools had more resources he would like to test athletes “in the beginning and middle of the week and test them again when they leave us (for the weekend).” Professional and college teams, which test frequently, have seen outbreaks, such as at Clemson where 37 football players have tested positive

Diana Cervantes, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at UNT Health Science Center, said high schools, like many other places where people are congregating again, are likely seeing a surge in cases. “That really is happening because more things are opening up and people are going out more and spending time close together,” she said. “And it’s only going to increase as we move into the fall. Not only are kids going to be out and about together in school ... more than likely so will their parents.”

To manage positive coronavirus tests without canceling workouts for long stretches, Arlington schools have separated athletes into pods. The 12 athletes in each pod exercise together and remain socially distanced from everyone else. That way if someone in the pod gets coronavirus only the members of the pod are required to isolate for 14 days, rather than the entire team.

The plan has been successful so far this summer. It has allowed for minimal interruptions to workouts at Martin, Arlington High School and Arlington Bowie after positive COVID tests. But the summer is mostly about individualized strength and conditioning drills. The fall means the start of school and scrimmages and games — none of which are conducive to 12-person pods. “That’s why the NBA is going to go to a resort and isolate everybody. They’re going to be in one giant pod and testing,” said Eric White, the Arlington athletic director. “When you talk about teams facing each other that’s the challenge we’re facing right now.”

White has no idea if there’s an optimal, safe way for games — and close interactions between athletes — to begin. “It is on my mind most of the day,” he said.

Cervantes said games would not afford the flexibility of socially distanced workouts, where public health officials can better determine specific athletes who need to isolate. In a football game, she said, all the active players in a game involving an athlete who tested positive would likely be asked to quarantine.

“That’s 22 kids who might be asked to quarantine,” she said. “So what’s going to be our plan here? How are they going to switch to online teaching if they are in person? Are we going to tell our students after you play a big game, do you sign something saying you know there’s a risk?”

Although coaches and athletic directors acknowledged safety as their first priority, they said the importance of athletics should not be understated. They have encountered students desperate for exercise and a feeling of community in the limited time they’ve been working out. Angela Lumpkin, a Texas Tech professor who has studied the effects of extracurricular activities on high school graduation rates, said athletics can be the motivating factor for some students to continue attending school and passing classes.

“Its absence would leave a huge hole in the high school experiences of students,” she said. “The issue really for students is a balancing act between enriching their high school experiences and putting themselves at risks. That’s a very difficult position, probably more so for the parents than it is for the students.”

Lumpkin could see sports like golf happening this year or soccer and volleyball with lots of protections. She’s less optimistic about the state religion of football. Many public health officials, including White House adviser Anthony Fauci, have expressed similar doubts about football being played at any level, particularly if a second wave of coronavirus sweeps the country in the fall.

A year without football would likely be unprecedented in Texas. Texas high school athletes played football during the worst of the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 and at the height of World War II.

Criss is not ready to give up on football yet. “The reason we’re back at practice is we hope to play.” But he added: “You don’t want to be on the wrong side of it. You don’t want to be on the side of we were so gung-ho to get back that it causes a loss of lives.”

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©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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