By Dave Ongie, News Editor
A lot of meetings, research and cooperation has led to a plan that will allow local high school athletes to return to school facilities to begin preparing for next season. Athletes from Mountain City to Morristown will be allowed to start training and practicing at school facilities on June 1 with several safeguards in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner was a key contributor during the process that led to the Northeast Tennessee Return to Action Plan, which has been officially approved by directors of the school systems in our region.
“Regionally, we’re taking a conservative approach,” Turner said. “We’re not jumping all in at one time.”
While athletes from a multitude of sports will get back to training on June 1, all eyes are on football. The money generated by ticket sales at football games is the lifeblood of virtually every school’s athletics budget. That makes finding a way to complete a football season with fans in attendance a high priority for athletic directors.
“It’s critical,” Turner said. “If we don’t have it, it would change dramatically what we would be able to do in regards to equipment, uniforms, practice gear. It would impact every team that we have.
“I don’t know what we’d do if we don’t have it. I don’t want to even contemplate losing it or not having it.”
Given the physical demands of the sport, football players will need to hit the ground running in order to be physically ready to play in late August, the traditional start of the high school season. When players return on June 1, they’ll have their temperatures taken and work in groups of nine with plenty of space between groups.
While finding a way to play football and basketball this year with fans in attendance is a high priority for athletic directors, the health of the players and coaches obviously comes first. Turner said local athletic directors poured over documents from top universities as well as the Miami Dolphins in order to incorporate the best practices into their plan for Northeast Tennessee, and advice has been sought from medical professionals with expertise in this area.
Athletes who show up at school facilities on June 1 can expect to be screened for symptoms and will be quarantined an appropriate amount of time if they have either been exposed to COVID-19 or have been diagnosed with the illness. Only school personnel and students will be allowed on campus when workouts begin. Locker rooms will be closed and parking lots will be monitored to ensure students don’t gather in large groups before or after training.
Schools will be responsible for sanitizing shared equipment, and students can only do weightlifting exercises that don’t require a spotter.
Given the uncertainty that will likely remain once the summer is over, Turner said schools will need to keep all options on the table in order to adapt to the situation.
“I don’t think anything is outside the box right now,” he said. “You have to be open to change and how you do stuff.”