Horry County Schools has approved its Phase 1 plan for returning student-athletes for voluntary summer conditioning.
It’s being met with guarded optimism.
The accepted proposal will send students back to campuses in an official capacity for the first time since March, when COVID-19 forced classes into an e-learning format and extracurricular activities to be canceled. The plan, disclosed to MyHorryNews.com, allows for football conditioning beginning Monday and then the rest of fall sports on or after July 6. All sports will be subjected to daily wellness and temperature checks for players, coaches and staff, as well as distancing guidelines, limitations on number of participants and a required acknowledgement of risk waiver to be signed by parents.
And given the overload of information available and the coronavirus’s evolution, there is little consistency as to the comfort level of all involved moving forward.
“I’ve had some [athletic directors] and coaches tell me they’re afraid because of the unknown,” said Roger Dixon, the district’s athletics liaison. “I won’t say it’s kept me awake. But if I do wake up, it’s the first thing on my mind.”
Dixon and others from the district office have been in constant contact with officials at the nine high schools, especially in recent weeks. In May, the South Carolina High School League put the onus for returns up to the individual districts across the state. Some started this week; others have yet to set return dates.
Meanwhile, Horry County Schools was already assessing its own supply situation and testing capabilities. On Thursday, the various athletics directors were informed via a Zoom meeting that Phase 1 was a go — first for football and then for the rest of the fall sports two weeks after. This is no free-for-all.
Teams will be allowed to gather in staggered, 10-person pods. That figure includes any coaches. Each group will be required to go through a wellness and temperature check prior to each workout.
Each pod must have its own outdoor playing surface (meaning teams won’t be able to split a football field among multiple pods). No equipment or weights are allowed during these drills.
Football teams will have a minimum of two weeks under the Phase 1 protocols, at which point the other sports can commence their own sessions. HCS’s announcement stated that as of now, there is no immediately plan to proceed to Phase 2.
“The football coach in me is super excited to be back out with our guys and see our guys and be around them,” Myrtle Beach coach Mickey Wilson said. “But there’s another side of me. It’s worrisome. You’re not sure if someone is sick or not. It’s a little tricky. It’s a double-edge sword.”
Said St. James coach Tommy Norwood: “We’ve got a good plan to keep our kids safe and get them back in shape little by little. But we don’t know. Getting all the paperwork done is a concern for all of us.”
The paperwork Norwood is referring to is two-fold.
First, no student-athlete will be allowed to participate in the workouts without an updated physical form on file. In addition to the previous standards, student-athletes are supposed to be clear of certain medical conditions — such as asthma or diabetes — that have shown to make individuals more susceptible to COVID-19. Some student-athletes were not able to get physicals done during lockdowns.
Secondly, the district is also requiring parents to sign the COVID-19 waiver stating they understand the risk of allowing their child to participate. Dixon said that the district determined late Monday afternoon that those waivers would not need to be notarized, potentially removing a snag.
That doesn’t mean every parent will automatically sign it.
“I’m sure we won’t have every kid in the program. Some parents will say ‘No.’ I think everybody will experience that — at least with a few [players],” Conway coach Carlton Terry said. “Due to the circumstances, you can’t blame a parent who wants to keep their kid safe or feels like they’re keeping their kid safe due to a deadly virus. This is different from a kid saying ‘Coach, I’m going on a vacation for a few days.’ We need to plan accordingly.”
Both Terry and St. James’ Norwood stated they believe Phase 1 to be safer than what some of their players are doing currently. Videos of athletes meeting in fields or at campus stadiums participating in small-group workouts since the beginning of the school lockdowns have been abundant on social media.
However, those informal sessions don’t tell anyone if football is a possibility this fall, if teams and schools are even prepared. The recent Horry County increase in not just positive COVID-19 tests, but percent positives, has everyone a bit timid.
“If the numbers keep going the way they’re going, I don’t see it,” Aynor coach Jason Allen said of the 2020 football season. “But I try to remain positive and hopeful. I was probably more hopeful a month ago.”
Several of the coaches used the term “fluid” to describe the situation as a whole, admitting nothing is set in stone. It just so happens that the Phase 1 will begin with the most populous influx of fall athletes.
“We’ll get to see any kinks we have in the system,” Carolina Forest Athletics Director Tripp Satterwhite said. “It allows us to figure out with the largest group the best way to do this and make sure everyone is within the guidelines.”
Said Dixon: “We’re going to see with football if we can do it correctly and that our plan is going to give us an accurate assessment moving forward. We going to do the best we can and hopefully we can get the kids back.”