No playbook for fall sports as schools navigate pandemic
Editor’s note: This is part of a series examining the impact of COVID-19 on our community six months into the pandemic.
Flexibility and patience have been cornerstone components of managing the fall sports season during a global pandemic — among student-athletes, coaches and administrators alike.
There have been frustrating moments, positive tests and quarantine requirements. Area leaders have also witnessed plenty of progress, though, when it comes to rules and respect.
“If they want to continue to have a season, they really have no choice. I think they understand that,” Fort Dodge Senior High Activities Director Kevin Astor said. “The vast majority of coaches and kids have figured out that if you want to play, and keep playing, you have to figure out a way to make this work. Wear masks. Socially distance. Keep equipment clean and sanitized.
“It’s not perfect, of course, but we’re learning more every day and trying our best to make everything work. We have to continue to keep that mentality moving forward as we get (deeper into fall and with winter around the corner). That’s just our reality right now. To be honest, having the kids learn that sometimes you have to make sacrifices and do what you have to do before you get to do what you want isn’t a bad lesson at all.”
Like most schools, the Dodgers have already lost a number of athletes to the COVID-19 quarantine process. It’s been a much more arduous path for Manson Northwest Webster, which has dealt with interrupted seasons in baseball, junior varsity football, and varsity football — all within a matter of three months.
“It’s really tough, especially given the number of kids who have been in quarantine twice now (with baseball and football) despite never having been sick, test positive or even (display) any symptoms,” MNW Activities Director Dustin Meyn said. “Given how (the district) sits geographically, we’re following both (the) Calhoun and Webster County (Public Health Departments). And that can be a challenge, because counties aren’t always on the same page with everything. They make the call when it comes to our quarantine protocol and the procedures we follow.
“It’s just all a part of the process, though. You live and learn. Everyone is trying their best to do what’s right, and it’s something that — while it gets difficult and complicated at times — we respect and understand.”
Meyn saw teachable moments come from the paused seasons.
“I think it gets everyone to take (rules and regulations) that much more seriously,” Meyn said. “We’ve implemented seating charts on the bus for road trips. We’re disinfecting and not sharing equipment. We’re socially distancing whenever possible. We see more and more of our student-athletes regularly wearing masks.
“When you have something taken away from you, it can be a wake-up call. The coaches and (MNW administration) continue to preach to the kids that not only are you protecting yourself and potentially saving your season, but you could also be saving the life of a parent or grandparent who could otherwise be compromised. So they’ve been more aware, knowing there isn’t much margin for error.”
St. Edmond Activities Director Zach Steinhoff went through a similar situation with the St. Edmond baseball program this past summer, and the volleyball program most recently. The Gaels are currently quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure, but will return to the court later this week if all goes as planned.
There is no playbook for this kind of environment, so Steinhoff is keeping the message positive in his first season at the helm.
“The coaches, student-athletes, event workers, and spectators have done a tremendous job this year given the circumstances and everything we are asking of them to promote a safe environment. I have been extremely impressed with their diligence to adhere to the guidelines we have put in place for school activities.
“Again, this is uncharted territory for everyone, and there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all model a school system or activities department can replicate, as each school system is inherently unique. As a collective unit (coaches and administrators), we are continuously evaluating and striving to improve systems and processes in all areas of our activities department with student safety as our top priority.”
Astor called scheduling games and activities a “real challenge.” Fort Dodge has already had two of its varsity football contests — at Mason City and versus Des Moines North at home — called off.
“Things change on a day-by-day basis. Sometimes, it’s almost minute-by-minute,” Astor said. “We’re all in the same boat, trying to work together to keep (the seasons) moving forward. Fortunately, we were able to fill those (vacant spots) with Sioux City East and Marshalltown (respectively) when (the cancellations) took place. We’ve all just had to adjust and even improvise a lot.”
Astor added the programs are “controlling what they can.” Though perfection isn’t attainable, making every student more cognizant of their respective surroundings remains the top priority.
“It requires discipline, character and maturity,” Astor said. “These kids have a lot to lose, whether it’s a sport or an activity they love. The adults should continue to prioritize a clean, safe environment to learn and compete. And the kids can do their part when they’re around each other or away from the structure of (their extracurricular environment).
“It’s sometimes very difficult for a 16- or 17-year-old to handle, but they’re grasping the importance more as time passes — not just for themselves, but friends and family members around them and the community.”