Brittany Price, a Novant Health certified athletic trainer at Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in Kernersville, North Carolina, hasn’t been at a game or match since March 13. There haven’t been any.
None of Novant Health’s 42 full-time Certified Athletic Trainers (ATCs) – 17 in Winston-Salem and 25 in Charlotte plus part-timers – have been able to fulfill their normal job duties since COVID-19 hit. ATCs are an essential part of high school sports. They’re embedded in private schools, charter schools and traditional public high schools to provide services ranging from injury prevention to first aid to rehab.
There’s typically one ATC per school, and he or she works with every athlete across the full range of sports. At a competition, the ATC is also responsible for caring for the away team’s athletes.
Price returned to her job in June. Her student athletes aren’t competing yet, but she’s helping ensure they’ll be ready when competition begins.
Fortunately, there’s a clear path laid out. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) and the North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association (NCISSA) issued comprehensive guidelines for activities allowed during each phase. Every detail – including the number of people who can be inside a gym and on a field – is spelled out. The 46 pages of guidelines include cleaning protocols, the number of spectators allowed, ingress and egress.
“It's all based on fact versus speculation,” said Erin Hart, who oversees Novant Health’s ATCs in the Charlotte area.
At Bishop McGuinness, every team is allowed two days of practice each week. The teams’ practices are staggered to avoid a cluster of student athletes hanging out in the school parking lot at one time. Thirty minutes are required between when one sport starts practice and the next sport is allowed to begin.
“Students get screened when they get to school each morning, and then we screen them again before practice,” Price said. “Coaches get screened, too. We ask a series of yes/no questions provided to us by the NCHSAA and take everyone’s temperature. They have to pass the screening to practice.”
Pods; not squads
They work out in pods of five to 10 people. If an athlete in one pod gets sick, the whole pod must stop practicing and quarantine. But healthy pods can keep practicing. “This was an attempt to stave off any sort of mass infection,” Hart said.
During Phase One, workouts and conditioning sessions were limited to no more than 90 minutes, Hart said. Outside gatherings were limited to 25 people; gatherings in gyms were limited to 10 people. The gathering numbers include coaches, managers, trainers – not just students.
Some sports are coming back now or will soon. Football won’t come back until 2021 – and even then, the season will consist of seven games rather than the usual 11. Football players will begin practice Feb. 8.
“No team is allowed to have contact now,” Price said. “Since Bishop McGuinness is a smaller school with a smaller football team, we’re able to have all the linemen in one pod, offense in another pod and defense in another.”
Hart is grateful Novant Health practiced “defense” in responding to COVID-19. Her own team of ATCs is still entirely intact, as is the Winston-Salem team under the supervision of Bob Casmus.
“Novant Health has done a great job of keeping team members on board,” she said. “At a lot of places, people were furloughed or laid off. But Novant kept team members and found creative ways to redistribute their talents by working in clinics, supply chain and COVID-19 screening centers. We would never have recovered those positions if they were taken away from us. Our athletic trainers have built relationships with departments we wouldn't have interacted with otherwise.”
Price is grateful to her student athletes, who have been good sports about following all the new, rigid safety protocols: “My kids have been very adaptive and cooperative. They were so happy just to be back at school and able to see their friends again.
“I thank my kids all the time,” Price said. “None of this is normal. They’ve done such a good job adjusting. They are making big sacrifices, and they need to know it’s appreciated.”