COVID presents different challenge for school athletes

Student athletes train with push-ups during "Season 1" conditioning at Cottage Grove High School.

Students athletes are back in the fields and courts for the 2020-21 school year, but little of their routine resembles previous seasons.

With heavily differing metrics regarding COVID-19, Lane and Douglas County school districts are navigating approaches to the sports season in different ways.

“To some degree, it’s left up to the local level,” said Cottage Grove High School Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Matt Myers. “Different districts are doing different things. I’ve talked to [athletic directors] who are doing nothing. They’re totally shut down.”

The Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) has issued statewide reopening guidance which splits sports into three categories: full-contact (football, wrestling, cheer, basketball and dance); minimal/medium-contact (softball, baseball, soccer, volleyball); and non-contact (tennis, swimming, golf, cross country, track and field, sideline/no-contact cheer/dance).

Which sports are allowed and to what degree participation may take place depends on a school’s instructional method.

For schools like those in South Lane School District (SLSD) which are engaged in Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) and have yet to progress to hybrid or on-site learning, all indoor sports are likely to remain in a “training and conditioning” phase until metrics come down.

The guidelines allow for schools which operate with hybrid or on-site learning to fully participate in most indoor and outdoor sports with the exception of full-contact sports basketball, wrestling and football.

County COVID-19 metrics are largely determining where a school or district falls within the guidelines.

Lane County reported 69.4 cases per 100,000 and an 8.6 percent positivity rate for the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3, which has restricted instructional methods to CDL. 

Over the same time, Douglas County reported 23.2 cases and a 3.5 percent positivity rate, giving Douglas County school districts much more leniency in how learning models and thus sports operate.

Still, South Lane has developed its own plan for the Aug. 31 to Dec. 27 schedule, deemed “Season 1,” which is less restrictive than schools in more populated areas.

“It really varies depending on the districts. We’re somewhere in the middle,” said Myers.

Cottage Grove High School has opened its athletics field for Season 1 to students who want to take part in training and conditioning programs.

The school chose to offer outside training so as not to complicate activities with the more restrictive indoor rules.

“And with the nice weather, we’re just going to stay outside as long as we possibly can,” said Myers.

Four days a week, groups of 20 or so students may show up for 40 minutes with a trainer, performing various conditioning tasks such as running, lifting, push-ups, dips and other workouts.

“It just depends day-to-day,” said Myers. “It’s very generic so we can capture everyone — because every single sport has been invited regardless of the season.”

Masks are required at check-in where students are screened with questions about their state of health and exposure to anyone with coronavirus.

On the field, students may remove their masks providing they maintain six feet of distance, a task Myers admits is a challenge for teens.

“That’s the hardest part,” he said, “but kids have been good about not touching and high-fiving.”

Students must also stay strictly within groups they checked-in with during practice to minimize contact numbers. 

Any shared equipment such as weights or benches are sprayed down and sanitized after use.

 Students still must sign the regular paperwork needed for a regular sports season, but the high school has subtracted the usual fee.

“We’re not charging a sports fee. It’s hard times,” Myers said. “It’s about mental health, too. A lot kids the first week had big smiles on their faces because they were just so happy to see their friends and get out of the house.”

Considering the limitations of Season 1, competitive events are doubtful, but Myers is cooking up an idea for a “CG Combine” where, one Friday per month, various physical fitness challenge stations will be set up for students to compete against their peers.

“I just wanted to make it so they have something to shoot for,” said Myers.

If current plans hold, Dec. 28 is the tentative start date for winter sports, with competitions beginning Jan. 11, though it remains to be seen do what degree this will be allowed, if at all.

“If we get the metrics low enough to get the kids back in school, then we have a really good shot at doing sports,” said Myers. “If we can’t get kids in-person into school, then there’s no way we’re going to be able to justify this.”

Meanwhile, Douglas County schools are enjoying a less restrictive sports environment, though the season looks far from normal.

“We’re just kind treating it like a mini version of the regular OSAA year,” said North Douglas High School Athletic Director JJ Mast.

As North Douglas started a week late, a total of 15 weeks of sports will be split into smaller 5-week “seasons,” giving fall, winter and spring sports all equal time to practice.

And, unlike South Lane, North Douglas athletes may have a chance to compete.

With baseball, softball and track currently in their 5-week session, Mast is actively seeking games.

“As soon as they have their nine days of practices in, they’re eligible for competition,” he said.

The trouble, however, is finding another school that has adopted the same schedule.

“In this model, it’s hard because to get a game you have to find someone doing baseball and softball at the same exact time,” said Mast. “So it’s a little harder to get games, but we’re trying.”

Regardless of finding that competitive element or not, Mast said the mere opportunity for some athletics was a positive force.

“That’s the key, just get something going and get them out there,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how this all works out, that’s for sure.”

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