Seth Garbanzos, a senior at Bishop McDevitt, answers questions about any current COVID symptoms as he signs in for a cross country workout.

Seth Garbanzos, a senior at Bishop McDevitt, answers questions about any current COVID symptoms as he signs in for a cross country workout.

As teams return to their fields, courts and tracks for summer workouts and the official start of practice in a few weeks, the safety of student-athletes is the ultimate goal.

Diocesan high school administrators, athletic directors and coaches welcomed hundreds of student-athletes back to campus in June and July, and they did so with well-defined protocols to safely resume athletics.

In a recent interview with several high school athletic directors, The Catholic Witness learned about the schools’ safety measures for returning to sports, and how students are responding.

“Our absolute, number one priority is the health and safety of our student-athletes, the coaching staff and the community families,” said Tommy Mealy, athletic director at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg. The home of the Crusaders began welcoming a dozen teams back to campus on July 6 for voluntary workout sessions.

Long before summer sessions got underway, athletic directors at each of the Diocese’s six high schools poured their efforts into developing “return-to-play” guidelines and protocols in response to the pandemic.

The high points of each school’s detailed strategies – which can be found on their respective websites – include wearing face masks, conducting health screenings and taking temperatures at arrival, maintaining social distancing guidelines, routine cleaning of equipment, working in small groups and gathering information for contact tracing.

“What we can control right now is a safe environment for our kids to come on to campus, be around each other, have some camaraderie, work hard for their sport, and leave safely,” Mealy said. “We’re also encouraging our kids to watch what they’re doing when they’re off campus. We want them to be diligent and understanding of how COVID is spread, because whatever they’re doing can ultimately come back to our campus. We want them to be safe, not sorry.”

In late July, the PIAA released a “Return to Competition” document with protocols on fall sports as teams look with cautious optimism to the start of the fall season. The statewide organization, however, has placed responsibility on the schools to put their own day-to-day measures into place.

Lancaster Catholic Field Hockey Coach Abigail Henry, right, takes temperatures as team members arrive for voluntary workouts.

Lancaster Catholic Field Hockey Coach Abigail Henry, right, takes temperatures as team members arrive for voluntary workouts.

“We have a good network of athletic directors in the Diocese,” Mealy said. “We’re in touch and bouncing ideas off of one another all year long. Each school’s return-to-play guidelines are pretty similar. There was sharing of ideas, but we each developed our own.”

“We’re stressing safety constantly to the students,” said Rich Hinnenkamp, athletic director at Lancaster Catholic High School. “They understand that our mission as administrators, ADs and coaches is about them. As a Catholic school, the mission is about our students.”

By all accounts, student-athletes are following the protocols and taking the guidelines seriously.

“They’re all excited just to be back on the field. Because of the shut-down in March and not having a clear-cut ending to the school year, these kids are anxious to come back. They’re willing to wear masks, to stand six feet apart, to have only one or two people in the bathroom at a time,” said Kevin Bankos, athletic director at York Catholic High School.

The athletic directors said they’re also using this time as an opportunity to re-inforce the value of charity, sacrifice and responsibility for others.

“It’s important that we all take steps to protect each other,” said Hinnenkamp. “We can’t be callous about it. The examples we set as educators should be the right example. We’re continuing to stress what’s important and to protect each other as much as we can.”

“The message we’re sending is, make no assumption that nobody is at risk,” said Bankos. “You don’t know the situation of a grandparent living with a student at home or a brother or sister that has asthma. You can’t make the assumption that your world is normal, and so is everyone else’s.”

Some of the recent enhancements made by the high schools include anti-static backpack sprayers, hand-held foggers and a Clorox 360 machine – all of which can quickly and effectively sanitize classrooms, the gymnasium, lockers and equipment.

At Lancaster Catholic, return-to-play measures also focused on injury prevention as part of students’ physical health.

When Hinnenkamp began developing the schools’ return-to-sports plan in May, he and Pete Anderson, health and physical education teacher, were concerned about the physical shape of student-athletes who might not have been as active as usual in the spring. They offered a three-week camp in June with newly-purchased equipment designed for hip mobility, core strengthening and short speed training.

More than 260 student-athletes attended the sessions.

“We knew that if we didn’t do anything to help them return to workouts and practices, we were going to see ACL tears, shin splints, hamstring injuries, and other problems,” Hinnenkamp said. “We did short hurdle work, band exercise, lightweight kettle work, things that help with the core, hip and conditioning. We could see there was a definite improvement in their mobility, and we felt confident as they began their own work with their respective teams. We bought equipment specifically for this, to help ensure the safety of our kids in this way too. It will be something that we’ll do every year from now on.”

As teams prepare to begin practice, there will likely be some uncertainty about whether the upcoming season will begin and how long it might last. What is certain is that protocols will continue to be in place and student-athlete safety will remain the top priority.

“We’re looking at things as just being fortunate to be on school campus and getting back together in some capacity. Seeing the students’ faces and dialoguing with them in ways we hadn’t been able to since March is a big victory in itself. It’s great to be around them and see them happy and socializing,” Mealy said. “We’re hoping for some optimism here in the fall. We’re just working to control what we can to keep them safe.”

The athletic directors said there is a level of cautious optimism as the fall sports season approaches and confidence in the protocols in place.

(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness