EDINBURG — Universities and college athletic conferences around the country are hurrying to figure out how to change and adapt to meet challenges of safely returning student athletes to campuses amidst the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

UTRGV will be among many of Texas’ NCAA Division I universities reopening its campus in the fall that are currently trying to work out the safest way to get its wide array of student-athletes back to the Valley and how to prepare for their arrival.

“We’ve had to rethink everything. That’s really probably been the most complex and difficult part of this,” UTRGV Vice President and Director of Athletics Chasse Conque said. “We’re in the business of bringing people together, whether that’s young people and our coaches and staff or the community, so everything we’re talking about for this year is totally different than anything we’ve experienced in previous years. It’s been really impressive though watching our university work through this.”

“We feel good about what we can put in place for our student athletes, but at the same time, part of the plan is to be able to shift gears quickly. That’s probably the hardest part, you think you know what you need to do today and then a week from now, things can change dramatically and put you on a different course,” he added. “But we’re meeting with each team individually right now going through our plans and our protocols. The things we know we’re going to have to do are not fun, but they’re purely to keep everyone safe.”

The unique challenges posed by the coronavirus have led UTRGV and many other DI universities to re-examine each of their athletic programs from the ground up, with some schools scheduling staggered workout and training times to comply with social distancing guidelines and others going to great lengths like setting up outdoor weight rooms.

“If going forward this is the new normal, it’s going to change things drastically,” said Lucas Monroe, UTRGV’s head strength and conditioning coach since 2017. “Once we get our kids back on campus, the (number) of athletes allowed in our weight is going to be small and the physical contact is going to be non-existent, so it’s going to make us be creative with how we write stuff in terms of safety and not having spotting, in terms of the amount of equipment or the exact individual equipment we can have. We have 12 individual stations right now and that’s going to make us have to be creative in our programming. Ideally this is just a small time frame and then we can kind of get back to what our model was to really be effective in training.”

UTRGV Deputy Athletic Director Molly Castner has headed the university’s internal planning committee, which has met twice weekly since the end of the spring semester to map out the school’s plans to gradually bring students and student-athletes over a three to four week period.

“We’ve learned a lot since March when everything shut down, and that’s what we want to do. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel as we go into the fall,” Castner said. “From an academic standpoint, we learned a lot in March about what advising looks like in a virtual world and online classes look like. I do feel like we’re more prepared from an academic and compliance standpoint. I think virtual tutoring is something we’ll keep doing after we get back to our usual normal. I think we’ll continue to do that because we do have a unique population of student-athletes who travel and what we’re learning about distance advising and tutoring we can use when they’re on the road because of certain athletic events.”

UTRGV’s athletic department also features a much greater degree of student-athlete diversity than most other Texas schools its size.

The Vaqueros’ 16 men’s and women’s athletic programs include student-athletes from every corner of the United States and 39 different countries on six continents, presenting an arduous task for school officials to monitor the public health situations around the country and the globe.

Conque, Castner, Monroe and other UTRGV campus leaders have mapped up a plan to return all student athletes to campus in phases before the first day of classes are scheduled to begin on Aug. 24, but noted that they’ve already experienced the need to maintain flexibility and nimbleness throughout the planning process. 

“Our initial plan had some of our student athletes arriving as early as (one or two weeks ago), but with the rise of cases in the Valley and just the situation with our hospitals and health care right now, we’ve pushed that back a couple of weeks. Our first group of student-athletes will come later this month around July 20,” Conque said. 

“Just to give you the broad full-picture overview, our international student-athletes will come first and self-isolate on campus for 14 days. Then our domestic student-athletes will self-isolate at home for seven days, travel to the Valley and then self-isolate here for another three days. But both of those groups, domestic and international student-athletes, will be tested in different groups. In order to be cleared to return to athletic activity and end self-isolation you have to have a negative test, and then you’re also going to have to go through a physical.”

Conque added that UTRGV’s difficult-to-coordinate return-to-campus plan for student-athletes has most adversely affected planning for the Vaqueros volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball programs, but noted the university’s other student-athletes remained mostly on schedule.

“Our student athletes are very impressive. They understand the situation, they’re obviously well in tune with what’s going on and they’ve been very helpful,” Conque said.

“The good thing about what we did with our plan is that we built it to be adjustable as well. We have these phases and groups, so it’s not something we put together and thought, ‘This is it,’” Castner said. “Everything we’ve done has contingency plans and this is what happens if we shift or need to make a shift. We’re being really clear with our coaches and student athletes that their safety is first so that if we do make shifts, (it’s clear that) that’s why. Like Chasse said, it’s been incredible how they’ve reacted and been able to adjust as we’ve had to adjust.”

amcculloch@themonitor.com