McALLEN — Despite mostly working out of home offices, school administrators and coaches throughout the Rio Grande Valley have been busier than ever before in the middle of the summer.
Athletic directors, coaches, trainers and superintendents from every corner of the RGV have been in near constant communication with one another as they collaborate and scramble to determine how — if possible — to safely bring high school sports back to South Texas.
Their effort was rewarded Wednesday when the University Interscholastic League released an extensive list of updated COVID-19 guidelines and policies that outlined many of the necessary steps for school districts and high school athletics programs wishing to return to competition at some point during the 2020-21 school year.
For many coaches and administrators, however, the planning process is tantamount to walking across a tightrope trying to maintain a cautious balance between providing their student-athletes with every available opportunity while also striving to protect their health and safety.
“Absolutely, safety has really been emphasized today in terms of making sure that we do our part and I think it’s kind of a new role (in the context of COVID-19). We want our athletes to keep the opportunity to compete, but we want to make sure that we move forward in a very safe manner, not only for the athletes but for the coaches and community as well,” said Paula Gonzalez, McAllen ISD’s athletic director.
“I think something that’s unique as athletic directors is that we know that we have the role of being a resource to our athletes, community and coaches, but I think this is a very unique situation because there are so many question marks. Not only are there question marks, but they change on a daily basis, so there are definitely a lot of things that we do need to consider.”
The UIL has yet to change the start date for fall sports, but questions surrounding the return of high school athletics in the RGV are both wide-ranging and plentiful, easily outnumbering the amount of answers at the moment, which led McAllen ISD along with many other Valley school districts to hit pause on on-campus summer strength and conditioning workouts weeks ago out of “an abundance of caution.”
On July 1, the UIL recommended schools temporarily stop their strength and conditioning programs as cases climbed around the July 4th holiday weekend. On Wednesday, the organization announced schools may resume on or after Monday, July 13, once they have developed their own mitigation plan to safely allow student-athletes to access locker rooms and workout areas, but many programs in the RGV said they’ll take their time before rushing back too quickly.
No local school districts who have voluntarily paused their summer workout programs will be resuming July 13.
“With the new restrictions, as far as starting Monday, we decided it wouldn’t be a good idea and the best thing to do for the safety of everybody involved from the players, their families and coaches, was to go ahead and postpone and continue to monitor the situation just because of the increase in numbers (of COVID cases),” Mercedes head football coach and athletic coordinator Roger Adame said.
“This coming Monday will be three weeks before our first practice can officially start, and those conversations we will continue to have and monitor until the UIL releases some more information. I know they’re in charge of a whole state and in some parts of the state aren’t hot spots like we are, but we’re hoping we can get started on that day and realistically looking at it, we’ve also got to have a Plan B.”
Among many updates, the UIL’s most recent announcement mandates face masks or coverings during practices and UIL events and laid out specific step-by-step policies for schools on how to handle suspected COVID-19 cases and alternatively, lab-confirmed cases on campus.
The UIL’s revised COVID policies also provide details on social distancing guidelines, which type of face coverings are preferable and why, as well as the necessary requirements for sick athletes, coaches or staff to return to school and/or practice.
“We understand that we need to have a safe environment for all of our athletes to participate. There are some things we talked about like not going past noon and bringing them in from 8 a.m. to 12 and still requiring them to wear the masks and maintain social distancing,” said Weslaco High athletic coordinator and head football coach Roy Stroman, who has helped institute a check-in and wristband system to screen student-athletes at practices.
“We’ll have them fill out a questionnaire for participation and our trainers have done a tremendous job doing temperature checks on every athlete and making sure all our facilities are disinfected and clean. We’re also still going to maintain our 10-to-1 (player-to-coach) ratio inside and our 20-to-1 ratio outside, and we’re going to stick with 25% capacity in all our facilities. I know the UIL said 50%, but we’re going to stay at 25%.”
Coaches and administrators alike have been communicating non-stop with other area schools and school districts in different parts of Texas in order to collaborate and streamline solutions that will expedite the planning process for all parties involved.
“We have really planned for this thing with the Weslaco East coaches and our athletic department, and we’ve pretty much combined our ideas to try to come up with the best plan for our student athletes here in Weslaco ISD. We’re going to prepare like we are going to have a season and we’re doing pretty much what everybody else is doing with virtual meetings and staying connected,” Stroman said.
“My mentor and high school football coach is an athletic director at Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, and I’ve been in contact with him and some of my best friends up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area communicating back and forth,” he added. “We’re all pretty much just trying to figure this thing out.”
Many coaches and administrators, however, also pointed out that a lack of a high school sports season won’t fully guarantee that student-athletes who are hungry to play again will sit out with travel teams and local non-school affiliated leagues presenting alternate options.
The major benefit of having school-sponsored athletics if any at all, many argue, would be the abundance of COVID-related resources provided to schools as well as the education, training and accountability of high school coaches.
“What scares me a little bit is that if we don’t have a football season, then a bunch of these kids are going to find a way to play football,” Stroman said. “It’s already out there. You have people who are salivating at the mouth hoping that we don’t have football in high school because they are going to make their leagues, but this is our livelihood. You’ve got coaches that are trained professionals with … first aid and all the classes and clinics. This is what we do.”