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South Salt Lake Journal

High school student-athletes undergo COVID-19 testing, change approaches to competitions

Feb 09, 2021 03:08PM ● By Julie Slama

High school athletes like Hillcrest High’s basketball player Maddie Sluga undergo COVID-19 rapid testing every 14 days. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In swimming, the faster swimmers compete in the middle lanes. In basketball, traditionally, team captains shake hands with the opposing team and refs before the game and afterwards, players on both teams give each other a high-five. Wrestlers take the mats in multi-day competitions, but not anymore this season.

Those, and many other norms, aren’t the case in high school sports this winter. As high school student-athletes and coaches follow the Utah High School Activities Association’s COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, winter sports have a new look—and likely spring may follow some of the same protocols, say local high school athletic directors.

Throughout the state, the biggest change from fall sports to winter has been with restricting fans at indoor competitions and administering rapid COVID-19 every 14 days for student-athletes.  

It’s part of the UHSAA “Return to Play” guidelines after high school sports mostly took a two-week break in early November following former Gov. Gary Herbert’s mandate, said Sally Williams, Hillcrest High athletic director in Canyons School District.

The “Return to Play” guidelines were issued in early December after the Utah School Superintendents Association and UHSAA worked with the Utah State Department of Health to provide protocols after the state health order suspended the start of the winter season. 

Those guidelines were updated, with new policies of “test to stay” and “test to play” that took effect Jan. 4, when schools resumed from winter break. These have included if individuals are exposed to COVID-19, they can end quarantine 10 days after the last time they were in contact with the person who tested positive if they don’t have symptoms or they can return after a negative COVID-19 test result.

“We had to reschedule a bunch of games and give our teams time to prepare for the season; it was a bunch of shuffling for preseason and hard for both our boys and girls basketball teams as we have new head coaches in both programs and they had to put everything together, after delaying tryouts and early season preparations,” Williams said about the delayed winter season for her Midvale school. “But it still was probably good to get COVID numbers (of positive cases) down even though at that time, our school wasn’t high.”

Even so, both Hillcrest programs have had coaches and/or players test positive or be exposed to COVID-19, playing preseason basketball games with a skeleton team and both teams, canceling at least one game. 

Already numbers at tryouts were down, about half as many for the boys and barely enough student-athletes to fill three team rosters for the girls, Williams said, because of the impact of COVID-19 and that some online learners aren’t involved in sports this year.

“We’re at about 85% in-person enrollment this year,” Williams said. “The good news is that with the vaccine coming, we hope our spring season will happen since last year, their seasons were canceled because of COVID.”

Admission to the basketball games and wrestling matches are restricted to assigned seats for contact tracing purposes and with two tickets issued per athlete, with Hillcrest stating no children in attendance. Masks are required for patrons.

Even athletes sit socially distanced from each other, totes by their chairs with their own water bottles and face masks. Student-athletes are allowed to take them off only during competition, Williams said.

Swim meets’ admission is restricted by the facility; many schools practice and compete at county pools, which limit capacity at 50 people including both boys and girls swim teams, coaches and officials often exceed that number. So, 11 of the 13 Hillcrest meets were scheduled at non-county facilities.

“We looked at swimming boys or girls or varsity and JV separately, but that gets to be kind of a nightmare. They all swim together, so what happens with those other kids and how many days are they unable to practice if we do it that way,” Hillcrest head coach Ryan Thierbach said, adding that meets are livestreamed free for the Hillcrest community.

Hillcrest swimmers also split the pool, so girls and boys teams have less interaction with one another to reduce possible spreading of COVID-19.

At Jordan High, in Sandy, athletic director Jason Long said the school’s swimmers aren’t as much impacted as other schools since they practice at private pools and when public pools are shut down, those schools that practice at them have no options and aren’t getting time in the water. 

They also are finding a way for parents to watch their swimmers.

“We have invited some of our parents of seniors to be timers and judges so they can be there,” he said.

The competitions in the gym are different without student sections or pep bands. 

“We aren’t pulling out all the bleachers in the gym as only two parents are allowed in to watch competitions,” Long said, adding that most sports are being livestreamed for families to watch with a subscription.

At Jordan, staff members are continuing to take student-athletes’ temperatures and go through health symptom checks just as they did in the fall in addition to administering COVID-19 tests, usually 45 minutes before the school day begins. 

Not only does Long’s crew test student-athletes, coaches and managers, but also theatre and debate students since those activities fall under UHSAA.

“We’re not relaxing on anything,” he said, admitting that the days get long, with early morning testing to games at night. “We’re all on the same page following UHSAA guidelines. It’s a lot of extra work from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every single day, but we’re hopeful our students can compete and showcase their talents—and that’s worth the work.”

The push continues to wear masks for student-athletes, coaches, managers, trainers and athletic directors at practices, in huddles, team meetings, on the sideline and all the time, unless competing, he said.

“We have assigned seats socially distanced on the bus, in the locker room, on the bench. We’ll be able to trace each athlete and with the guidelines, keep the spread low. We shouldn’t have to shut down this way,” Long said, adding that even basketball drills are kept in small groups and drill is spaced distantly for contact tracing purposes. “If drill does any kind of lifts, they’re to practice in small groups and sanitize their hands.”

While the schools maintain the safety of its student-athletes and programs, referees fall under the UHSAA.

“Many of our refs wear masks until the game starts, then they take it off so they can use their whistles. They put the mask back on when talking to the coach or scorekeeper,” Long said.

In Jordan School District, Bingham Athletic Director Andee Bouwhuis said that instead of totes for the sideline seats, they have placed command strip hooks for masks and athletes keep their individual water bottles next to the chairs.

“We wipe down the bench with cleansing towels—the seats are spread out and assigned,” she said. “In the pool, we follow the county guidelines and limit five swimmers per lane, so our team is small this year.”

After the governor’s shutdown, Bouwhuis said she was surprised to see more athletes at tryouts.

“Kids are wanting to be involved and at school, not isolated at home,” she said. “Everyone is being flexible even as we’ve had to cancel or reschedule competitions. The coaches are just hopeful we’ll have a season and the athletes are putting it into perspective that just one or two games or meets aren’t that critical. I’m hoping that when spring comes, we can have a full season. That would be amazing.”

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