An offseason is typically a time of concern for high school athletic directors, who keep their fingers crossed as student-athletes sweat through the summer months in open gyms, weight rooms and on running tracks.
Nothing about 2020 has been typical, however, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, making this offseason one of uncertainty as schools welcome their athletes back to campus with return to play plans in place.
“Every AD holds their breath through (the offseason),” said Bermudian Springs athletic director Dave Orwig. “It’s always exciting to have athletics going on but I have some reservations. You never want to see any kind of injury or illness to student-athletes or coaches, and it’s out there, you can’t ignore it. You just don’t want to see anybody get it.”
On June 10, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf gave the green light for high schools to develop their return to play plans. In addition to adhering to Wolf’s safety mandates relating to the coronavirus pandemic, each school was tasked with developing a plan that would include COVID safety measures. Schools were required to have their plans passed by their respective school boards and made public on district websites.
Those approved plans are posted and athletes have resumed training at several area schools, with others set to being by July 6. Formulating a return to play plan was a collaborative effort among Adams County and YAIAA athletic directors, who had plenty of ground to cover during unprecedented times.
“There was a lot of collaboration from a lot of people,” said Orwig. “We shared a lot of information across the York-Adams league. I don’t know that our plans all look the same but there are a lot of similarities. I worked with our administration and head coaches, shared what we came up with and asked for feedback. We wanted to offer opportunities for the kids.”
Littlestown athletic director Jeff Laux appreciated having the ability to swap ideas with other schools while working to tailor an outline that met specific needs at Littlestown.
“What we do might be different from what they’re doing at New Oxford or Delone with a slightly different thought process, but we were able to run ideas by each other,” he said. “We have a good league across the board; all the ADs are helpful and friendly to work with.”
The approved plans by Times Area schools Bermudian Springs, Biglerville, Delone Catholic, Fairfield, Gettysburg, Littlestown and New Oxford contain numerous similarities that include limiting the number of athletes allowed to train together, maintaining social distancing when possible, screening athletes prior to training, not permitting contact drills or the sharing of water bottles or equipment. Restrictions are also in place for student drop-offs and pick-ups, and people other than athletes or coaches are not permitted. Athletic training rooms will remain closed although trainers will be available, and hand sanitizing stations are also required.
Schools are also required to closely monitor athletes during a screening process prior to workouts. Athletes showing any COVID symptoms will not be allowed to participate.
Finding an acceptable path to return to play was challenging for athletic directors who couldn’t call upon an established playbook.
“The challenge came from the fact that there was no clear-cut direction,” said Laux. “A lot of times in our industry you can take a document that’s been used before and make it work for your purposes. We had to make a document that made sense for our community and keeps them safe, and it was made from scratch in a sense.”
Laux applauded the efforts of his coaches who have worked tirelessly to develop training methods that stay within approved guidelines. An example was the wrestling team, which is extremely limited by no-contact regulations. Laux said team members have improvised by taking weight equipment outside to train, then disinfecting the equipment as groups rotate.
“Our coaches have done a great job of finding ways to work with our guidelines to make their sports go, which was not an easy task,” he said. “I’m very proud of our coaches.”
An example of different policies set forth by area schools is Bermudian, which is not permitting athletes to train indoors during what the school calls its Cherry Phase, designed for individual skill development. All activities shall take place outdoors, with no contact between athletes and no sharing of any equipment, including basketballs or footballs.
“It’s a safer environment being outdoors,” said Orwig. “Sports that are indoors like basketball and volleyball, we want to give them access but that requires a cleaning process between sessions and time would have to be allotted for that. The one thing I see is a lot of cooperation and understanding through the whole process.”
Weight rooms and gyms may be used with restrictions at other area schools, including Gettysburg, where head football coach Matt Heiser is anxious to resume working with his team.
“I’m excited for the kids to have the opportunity to get back out there and do some things with them and see their faces other than on a computer screen,” he said. “We can go into the weight room but we’ll rotate based on the number of players we have in there. Some will do agility work outside while others lift, and then we’ll transition the groups and wipe things down.”
Heiser has taken advantage of the ability to meet and share information with players digitally, both on Hudl and Zoom. He has posted daily workouts and held interactive training sessions with players, in addition to meetings with parents and his assistant coaches.
Football coaches are typically creatures of habit but Heiser said dealing with COVID concerns has provided an opportunity to evolve training methods and approaches.
“It’s been challenging but you have to adapt and seek different avenues,” he said. “The kids have to be upset, especially the seniors, and you have to be there for them. We’re seeking best way to keep everybody safe and be productive.”
Some area athletes playing for AAU, travel or recreation league teams have already returned to competition in sports such as baseball, basketball and softball. Safety guidelines for organizations not affiliated with a K-12 school are generally not as stringent as those set forth by high schools.
With growing uncertainty ahead in terms of what sports will look like when high school resumes in the fall, having protocols in place for athletes to resume training provides some stability, at least for now. Even so, Laux said he is split between being excited or anxious to have athletes back on campus.
“Probably a little bit of both,” he admitted. “This is uncharted territory, and there’s a level of anxiousness. But like most of our kids, I’m ready to be back and I’m excited. I’m excited to be around kids who are doing what they love to do.”