Mary Guzek is used to playing the role of “Team Mom” for her two sons’ Fridley youth football, basketball and baseball squads. Time was, that meant supplying snacks or filling water bottles.
But this fall, in the midst of a global pandemic, it means taking players’ temperatures before every practice and game, counseling parents of sick kids to keep them home, and running down a checklist of whether any of the 22 players on the fifth-grade football team have a cough or feel short of breath.
“Unfortunately, it’s what we have had to do to make sure our kids can play,” said Guzek, whose boys are 12 and 10. “But it was worse in the spring, when seasons were canceled, and the kids were sad and depressed. Now, they can play.”
It’s hard enough for some parents to volunteer their time and energy at the end of a workday to coach youth sports. But with COVID-19 rapidly spreading, they’re now forced to do more than manage lineups and the X's and O's to keep players on the field and the virus at bay.
Many parents and volunteer coaches across the metro area have added COVID-19 protocols to their duties. Taking player temperatures, scrubbing down equipment and alternating practice times have, for most, become routine. Meanwhile, some park and recreation departments, not wanting to saddle volunteers with such responsibility, have moved away from traditional soccer and football games, offering instead skills camps run by paid staff members at a handful of hub sites.
Jayme Murphy, who focuses on COVID-19 issues for the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, said youth sports groups across the state spent much of the summer exploring ways they could safely play in the fall. Some, he said, were committed to playing out the season. Others created scaled-down versions of their usual offerings. Still others canceled seasons altogether.
Key to those decisions was determining whether coaches and parent volunteers would feel overwhelmed by the responsibility for keeping COVID-19 in check. The Minnesota Department of Health has issued 13 pages of guidelines for safely conducting youth and adult sports.
“The question for volunteers and parents to ask themselves is how comfortable are they with risk?” Murphy said. “If you’re uncomfortable with this, if you’re uncomfortable with your child’s participation in this, that’s OK.”
With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise across the state this fall, those comfort levels may be challenged even more as the winter sports season approaches.
In St. Paul, officials at the city’s Parks and Recreation department canceled sports at 26 recreation centers over the spring and summer. This fall, they replaced tackle football and competitive soccer with flag football and soccer skills programs at six recreation centers.
They did so because “we didn’t want to throw the responsibility for following those protocols onto volunteer coaches,” said Andy Rodriguez, recreation services manager.
By limiting offerings to six sites, supervised by city employees with help from coaches at Cretin-Derham Hall High School and the Sanneh Foundation, Rodriguez said the city can better control social distancing, sanitizing equipment and health screening. Nearly 600 kids ages 3 to 14 registered for soccer in St. Paul, Rodriguez said. Almost 400 kids ages 8 to 12 signed up for flag football.
“For the most part, the families we have been working with are just thankful for something for their kids to do in the fall,” he said.
Davis Vue, who helped his 7-year-old son Memphis tie his shoes on a recent night, said he is one of the happy parents. The St. Paul native watched the coronavirus wipe out his own flag football league season, so he appreciates the city finding a way for Memphis to participate. It’s his son’s first year playing and he hasn’t missed a night, his father said.
“With this pandemic going on, I’m surprised Parks and Rec had this going on for kids,” Vue said. “I’m really glad they did.”
There’s also no tackle football in Minneapolis, where the city’s Park Board has offered flag football for young athletes 6 to 18. The soccer season has continued with a citywide schedule and volunteer coaches, said Mimi Kalb, director of athletic programs and aquatics for the Minneapolis Park Board. Younger children — on 6U and 8U teams — are playing games in “smaller service areas” with city staff members conducting many of the COVID-19 protocols, she said.
Some coaches and players and families opted out of playing, “but for those who wanted to play, we tried to take a lot of the responsibility off the coaches,” she said. “Our park staff and league directors are doing a lot of that.”
Tim Grate, athletics program director for Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, said many coaches have successfully incorporated their new responsibilities.
“I’ve seen coaches who laid out cones to make sure [players are] social distancing,” he said. “I haven’t heard a lot of complaints.”
John Swanson, a Fridley varsity football coach who oversees more than 200 youth teams across the north metro, said about 30% of them opted out of play because of COVID-19 concerns. Those that remained were committed to following all the necessary rules to keep playing.
“It’s one of the few things that still connects community,” he said. “Youth sports help us maintain that connectivity.”
Coaches and team moms and dads are keeping spreadsheets, taking temperatures, cleaning equipment, staggering practice nights and holding kids out if they show symptoms or test positive, he said. Teams have built time into their schedules to play makeup games when any had to quarantine for 14 days. So far, he said, there have been no COVID-19 cases transmitted on the football field.
“I don’t think we are asking the coaches to do too much,” Swanson said. “Volunteer coaches have proved they can do it.”