high school sports covid

Coaches have a new series of stats to track this season: COVID-19 positivity rates and symptoms.

With outbreaks of COVID-19 occurring around the state, Alachua County Public Schools coaches and student athletes almost didn’t get their fall sports season. Now that they have it, one positive test could threaten a season.

The season is in motion after a state-wide debate over if and when sports would come back after the spring season was cut short in March when COVID-19 forced schools to go virtual. With waivers, screenings, limited crowd sizes and social distancing guidelines, teams were allowed to have their first meets and games as of Sept. 4.

The Florida High School Athletic Association posted a 20-page report Aug. 18 outlining suggested COVID-19 protocols for the fall season. Athletes were permitted to begin practice Aug. 24 though voluntary summer practices were allowed.

According to the report, athletes must avoid sharing equipment, shaking hands and mingling. Coaches are required to take a COVID-19 course through the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The association’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee also suggested athletes fill out waivers acknowledging that organized sports can increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Ed Johnson is in his second year as Newberry High School’s football coach. The team lost its first game Friday against Hawthorne High School 14-20. Masked spectators were in the stands, which were held at 25% capacity.

Still, Johnson said the atmosphere was electric.

“Once the game started, it really wasn't different from the past,” he wrote in an email. “No worries about COVID, just blessed to be playing the game we love.”

At practices, Johnson wrote that the team limits the number of players in the locker room. Athletes also have temperature checks, answer COVID-19 screening questions and sign waivers.

“We went from not knowing if we'd even have a season, to praying that we can complete a full schedule,” Johnson wrote.

Finding athletes to join the team has been trickier with COVID-19, said Steven Doherty, Eastside High School’s cross country coach.

At practices, runners stretch and warm-up with masks on, he said. They can remove them when they run.

Meets will likely have heats of runners, or different races within an event, to allow for separation at the start line, he said. Runners will use disposable masks that can be disposed of after the start gun blares. Coaches and spectators are also required to wear masks. 

To Doherty, the COVID-19 precautions are like plugging a dam.

“If just one of us take their finger off a crack in the dam, the chances are the whole dam is going to burst,” he said.

Leonard Kraus, the head coach for swimming and diving at Gainesville High School, also said adhering to COVID-19 guidelines has been an adjustment for him and his team.

On the pool deck at Dwight H. Hunter Pool and Andrew R. Mickle Sr. pools where the team splits practices, groups are limited to 12 swimmers, Kraus said. In practices, he has only two swimmers in a lane compared to the usual three to five.

“In normal times, it already feels that you've got a nice wet, wool blanket wrapped around you while you’re on deck,” he said. “Now, you know, you have a mask on top of that.”

While the main concern in the past was training to beat other teams, Kraus said he worries about making it to the end of the season without an outbreak.

Other sports have also seen restrictions to curb potential outbreaks. The usual number of girls volleyball games has been cut to almost half, said Chancie Vice, the team’s coach at Gainesville High School. 

“We’re taking what we can out of it and running with it,” she said. 

The girls wear masks when not on the court, Vice said. Water breaks are socially distanced, and balls are disinfected every 15 minutes.

She said her players have been eager to compete even though some of the usual elements of sports, such as huddling together after scoring points, are discouraged.

Instead of shaking hands with other teams, players will wave, Vice said. Referees will also use electric whistles so they won’t have to take off their masks.

“I’m proud of the girls being able to handle these changes in stride and how relentless and focused they’ve been regardless through the situation,” she said.

Contact Sophie at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @feinberg_sophie.

Staff Writer

Sophie is the K-12 Education reporter at The Alligator. She is a journalism senior at UF. As the daughter and granddaughter of teachers, she is honored to take on this role and looks forward to sharing people’s stories.