After going through sports practice routines this summer, Park of Cottage Grove athletic director Phil Kuemmel is set to take it one step further amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Practice for high school fall sports gets underway Monday for girls’ swimming and tennis and boys’ and girls’ cross-country and soccer at hundreds of schools across Minnesota.
Their seasons have been shortened, with fewer games, and will conclude in October. Marquee sports football and volleyball have been moved to the spring (mid-March to mid-May) of 2021.
“I’m so excited to start the season,” Kuemmel said. “But I want to finish the season as well.”
Coaches and athletes had limited summer training that started in the middle of June, giving them a taste of COVID-19 restrictions that will guide what happens starting this week.
“That was a good practice run and helped a lot,” Kuemmel said. “It gave the coaches an awareness of what to do. We’ll have the same protocol that we experienced in the summer.”
But their teams will not have tournaments, and invitationals have been eliminated. Swimming and tennis will be limited to dual meets while cross-country’s largest event will be a triangular. The Minnesota State High School League also eliminated scrimmages and restricted travel for games.
“We [the Northwest Suburban Conference] are going to start with virtual swim meets, each team in its own pool,” Andover athletic director Eric Lehtola said. Some conferences will jump right in with head-to-head meets in the same pool. “Coaches want to have head-to-head matchups, and we’ll work our way toward that.”
Schools required by local health metrics to be in distance learning are limited to practices with virtual contact only, the high school league said. However, schools in districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, where distance learning was chosen for other reasons, will have fall sports.
A limited number of people will be allowed to attend soccer games, while nobody will be allowed to attend indoor events.
Football, volleyball and spring sports athletes who had their seasons canceled in April can still practice this fall as long as their schools approve. The three-week fall training period was approved by the MSHSL earlier this month.
Schools can choose whether to implement full or partial training periods or not offer them at all. Football and volleyball can train from Sept. 14-Oct. 3 while spring sports can go from Oct. 5-24. A maximum of 12 sessions can be held.
“When our fall coaches talked with their athletes about whether or not they would be interested in participating in these mini-seasons, the response they received was overwhelmingly positive,” Lehtola said. “With our spring mini-seasons, it’s more hit and miss. Those seasons don’t take place until October, so not all of the details are in place.
“Some sports plan to utilize this opportunity. Others are comfortable not putting something together for their athletes, or feel that their athletes are able to participate through other organizations.”
The high school league has sent schools a COVID-19 notification to share with athletes, reminding that participating in activities is voluntary. The safety of all those involved with an event is the main concern.
The league urged that the first week of practice focus on non-sports routines including “implementing effective protocols and routines for preparticipation screenings, effective social distancing, compliance with all health recommendations, [and] establishment of pod limits of 25 or less.”
Schools are taking precautions trying to keep everybody healthy, with proper social distancing at the forefront.
“The maintenance of 6 feet of distance between others, whether you have a face mask or not, is so important,” said Deb Mehr, health services coordinator for District 196 (Apple Valley, Eastview and Rosemount), during a recent school board meeting. “We’ve learned that it isn’t as much because of contact spread. It’s more the distance of respiratory droplets.”
The onus of remaining healthy will lie with the participants and their parents or legal guardians.
“We will not be doing a temperature screening on site,” said Mehr, noting that the district is following the same guidelines for when school gets underway. “That would be really impossible and would cause congregation of students and staff in areas of the building that would lead to higher risks. We are doing a more passive screening, an overall wellness check.”
At Park of Cottage Grove, “It will be self-monitoring,” Kuemmel said. “They will have a questionnaire to fill out before every practice.”
If somebody is symptomatic or tests positive, they must isolate for a minimum of 10 days. Those who come in close contact with someone who tested positive will have to quarantine for at least 14 days.
Describing a recent outbreak, Mehr said she learned a club team in the district “played a team that had two of their players test positive and we were directed to have our players quarantined for the next 14 days,” Mehr said. “Those players, if they are enrolled in fall sports, won’t be able to come back and participate right away. They will be quarantined until the 21st of August, so it impacts their high school sports activities.”
Lehtola and Kuemmel also experienced outbreaks during the summer. Lehtola said whenever they have a case, they notify their district health director and take direction from experts. Their school nurse and athletic trainers are also involved in the process.
“We had 750 kids in each of our five schools in the district [Andover, Anoka, Blaine, Champlin Park and Coon Rapids] during the summer,” Lehtola said. “We stayed in single digits for number of COVID cases during that time. There is a huge cooperation tone in our conference, and that helps my mind-set going ahead in the fall.
“We had some unknown cases, too, but they didn’t lead to mass outbreaks due to being in pods and small groups. We did amazing things this summer in trying times.”
Kuemmel, who has purchased a couple of forehead thermometers as a safety net, experienced the same thing.
“We had a couple of cases over the summer, so now we have the experience of going through it,” Kuemmel said. “It now gives us a chance to be even more detail-oriented. It’s a lot of extra work, but it can be done.”