Coronavirus: Ohio has 350K student athletes. What’s next for them?

Senior football players at Mechanicsburg High School run past the empty bleachers at the school’s stadium Thursday. With the Coronavirus pandemic, its not clear if fans will be in the stands for games this season. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Senior football players at Mechanicsburg High School run past the empty bleachers at the school’s stadium Thursday. With the Coronavirus pandemic, its not clear if fans will be in the stands for games this season. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

About 350,000 Ohio middle and high school students play school sports, but the coronavirus pandemic has left these athletes waiting to know if — and how — they’ll take to the field or court again.

At schools around the area, athletes have returned to workouts with numerous precautions in place designed to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks. Wellness checks, including taking temperatures, increased efforts to maintain hygiene and decreased sharing of equipment are all the norm.

That figures to continue the rest of the summer and into the fall, when things could get more complicated as larger groups of players are brought together for full practices and eventually games.

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Many questions remain, though, such as if games will be canceled or rescheduled if a player tests positive and how many fans will be allowed to sit in the stands.

Two Centerville High School football players have tested positive for COVID-19 recently, causing the district to put a hold on full-contact practices.

Some families are eager to provide some sense of normalcy for their kids, though. At In A Pinch Spirit Shop on U.S. 40 east of Springfield last week, prospective players and cheerleaders for the Shawnee Little Braves peewee football program shuffled in and out of their sign-up event at the screen printing shop, conversations sounded routine for the most part.

Questions about COVID-19 guidelines were sprinkled in with talk about what acquaintances have been up to since last season, who is old enough to graduate from flag football to tackle and what courses assistants need to take from USA Football to become certified.

Little Braves president and coach Dustin Estridge said the only difference from last year on the sign-up sheet was a provision that allowed parents to pull their kids out and get their money back if the state orders players to wear masks.

At this point, that is a recommendation, not a requirement, in state guidelines for contact sports revised and released June 18, although gatherings of 10 or more are still prohibited and contact sports are not yet allowed to hold competitions.

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Estridge, whose 11-year-old son Charles was among the players to get measured for equipment, said he anticipated having about 75 kids total in the program, which includes first through sixth graders.

Even if participation is down slightly from last year, he is happy to offer something familiar for the fall after an unusual spring and early summer.

“It’s crucial for the kids,” Estridge said. “They’ve been so cramped up and so constricted by this. All of them got their school years cut short and haven’t seen their friends in months. I think it’s crucial for the kids to have some kind of sense of normalcy.”

Should student athletes wear masks?

Dr. Lora Scott, program director of sports medicine at Dayton Children’s Hospital, said masks are advisable for athletes when possible but admitted they cannot be worn in all situations.

“If you’re indoors sitting on the bench waiting to go in to do something, that’s a good time to wear a mask,” she said. “There are a lot of in-between situations where some days it might be safer to wear a mask and some days it won’t. Like on a really hot day with a really hard workout, it might be safer to go without. On a cooler day with a lighter workout, it might be safer to go with it.”

In those situations, Scott said athletes will have to be allowed to judge their comfort.

“If you’re comfortable, wear the mask,” she said. “If you’re uncomfortable, you can take it off.”

Beyond that, many of the recommendations the hospital has published call for extra commitment to pre-existing best practices.

“A lot of these rules are things teams should be doing anyway to stop skin infections among athletes,” Scott said. “Skin infections have been around for a long time. Washing down surfaces, washing hands and things like that are protocols they should all be doing.”

Canceling or rescheduling games

When a freshman football player at Centerville tested positive for COVID-19 on June 19, director of athletics Rob Dement and football coach Brent Ullery said in a statement they immediately notified all of the families of players and coaches who might have been affected and discontinued his group’s workouts until all contact tracing and self-isolation had been completed.

“We have sanitized the facility space used by that team and are working with Dayton and Montgomery Public Health on our next steps,” Dement and Ullery said.

After a second Centerville football player tested positive last week for COVID-19, the school district put a hold on full-contact practices, as a school board member urged and other districts have done.

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Dayton Public Schools Director of Athletics Shawna Welch said her district had not had a positive test and will not jeopardize health for sports.

“I’m probably the athletic director that is saying something totally against everybody else,” she said. “I think if they’ve been in contact with (a positive case), then we’ve got to get all those kids tested, and if needed, then we would have to quarantine the team. And if that meant that we would have to postpone or cancel a game, then that’s what we would have to do. We’re not going to risk high school students — or anyone else — for a football game or a basketball game.”

Current state guidelines for sports call for immediately isolating a positive case, seeking medical care for anyone who develops symptoms and contacting the local health department.

Testing all suspected infections or exposures is recommended but not required by the state, so schools may have to decide individually and collectively how to handle when a player tests positive but the rest of the team isn’t showing symptoms.

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Scott Kaufman, director of athletics and a vice principal at Lakota West, said he is keeping an eye on hospitalization data as the number of reported cases has been on the upswing in Ohio and the country as a whole.

“That’s the only consistent number that we can look at is how many people are being admitted, and are the hospitals able to keep up with that admission?” he said. “And everything else is just a guess, so I think that’s the challenge. I feel very comfortable with the precautions that we have in place as a district. I think we are taking every possible precaution to keep our kids as safe as possible knowing there’s still a risk of exposure.”

When August rolls around, he suggested athletics could be viewed the same way as a class — and that some level of risk is going to have to be accepted to have kids take part in either this fall.

“If Johnny tests positive in first period math, if the expectation of a school district is to then quarantine everybody in that math class for 14 days, you might as well not even open school,” Kaufman said. “That’s just me. I’m not a superintendent. That’s not an official (school position), but that’s just the reality of what I think we’re dealing with.”

Kaufman said he brought it up on a conference call with other Greater Miami Conference athletic directors in the spring to start a conversation. The league hasn’t established a position.

“It’s not a matter of if somebody tests positive, it’s when somebody tests positive,” Kaufman said. “It’s going to happen, so what are you going to do, Mr. AD, when I call you and tell you my quarterback just tested positive? He’s not coming with the team and he’s not playing, but are you going to tell me I can’t come?”

Schools must answer that question before the season starts, he said.

“Because, quite frankly, if there’s a school that’s going to say, ‘If you have anybody that tests positive, they can’t come on campus,’ then don’t even have your season,” Kaufman said.

OHSAA Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass is already well aware of the potential of the coronavirus and positive tests to disrupt the season even if it starts as usual in August.

The OHSAA has formed a task force to develop guidelines and best practices, though they are just that because regular season contests are the jurisdiction of leagues and teams themselves while the OHSAA handles the postseason.

“We have to be prepared for everything,” Snodgrass said. “Like what happens if Northmont is scheduled to play Beavercreek, and Northmont can’t go? Or Beavercreek is shutting down?”

He noted that has happened before in the case of other illnesses, such as the flu.

“Just because your quarterback’s out, or your quarterback receiver and top running back are out, doesn’t mean you can’t play, right?” Snodgrass said. “I mean, that’s why you’d have J.V. kids. So we have got to be prepared for what we are going to say has to happen in situations like that. We are not prepared at this time, but we will be.”

However, the junior varsity squads at Division I schools such as Lakota West, Beavercreek and Northmont probably look a lot different than those at smaller schools with smaller rosters.

Mechanicsburg Athletics Director Cody Wilhelm pointed out the potential for major variances just within the Ohio Heritage Conference, which includes teams in the three smallest football divisions.

“I would definitely say (cancellations and postponements) are on the radar because of the uniqueness of the schools,” Wilhelm said. “We’re definitely going to have to look at it from multiple perspectives and there is going to be a possibility that we may have to move this game or that. I don’t know how that works for football but for other sports, it’s not uncommon to have to be flexible and move a game.”

Cautiously optimistic — for now

Snodgrass reiterated he is cautiously optimistic about the fall season, but admitted that caution has been rising with the growing number of positive tests in Ohio and the U.S. in recent days.

“I’ve never wavered from this and that is what we’re doing today is so critical to what happens in the fall,” he said in reference to social distancing practices recommended by the CDC and the state. “So I urge caution. I know a lot of people disagree with this, but I believe we’re in a good place right now for what’s being permitted.”

That phrase “what’s being permitted” is a nod to the fact that although the OHSAA is governing body, it really does not have much say in how things are going to go, at least until tournament time.

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DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, with the guidance of the Ohio Department of Health, have determined what citizens are able to do since the pandemic hit in March.

That trickles down to local health departments, where people like Dir. of Envrionmental Health Larry Shaffer at the Clark County Combined Health District are left to interpret the state orders and enforce them when or if that would become necessary.

“As the Ohio director of health and the governor are opening things up, we continue to have open communication with school staff,” Shaffer said. “They know that we desire for life to return to normal as much as they do, and we all want the students to have the experiences that we had.”

That includes visiting schools and explaining the state guidance, he said.

“While we cannot predict what orders may or may not be in place as the school year starts, our local schools are prepared to keep moving forward safely,” said Shaffer.

What about the crowds?

If games are able to go on, some scenes could be unfamiliar.

Aside from coaches, officials and at least some fans wearing masks, the stands at Booster Field in Maria Stein might only be half full.

That would not be because the 11-time state champion Marion Local Flyers have waned in popularity but the result of a mandate from the state.

While the state has not weighed in on what kinds of crowds might be allowed at games this fall, it might have given a hint in mid-June when it announced county fairs could hold grandstand events with half capacity, up to 2,500 people.

On one hand, having at least some fans on hand would be a positive, but on the other it would still create multiple headaches.

“We’ve got a very, very large season ticket base,” said Marion Local Coach Tim Goodwin, who estimated a big home game could draw as many as 2,000 fans in the stands and that many more for standing room. “So for us it’d be more like, how are we going to handle this and be fair to all of our loyal supporters?”

From a financial standpoint, Goodwin confirmed losing some football revenue would be a problem but one that could be managed in the short term, a position the athletic directors at Lakota West, Mechanicsburg and DPS all shared.

“It would be a struggle for sure,” Goodwin said, “but we would probably just weather the storm for a year. We would go lean for a year and not buy anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Maybe use your uniforms for another year and so forth.”

What’s Next

The Dayton Daily News is digging into what’s next as our community adapts to life with coronavirus. Next Sunday, we’ll examine what professional sports might look like and the economic impact on local communities.

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