July 14, 2020 — The Siuslaw School District placed a temporary hold on voluntary summer sports practices after a student reported flu-like symptoms on Sunday.
“The only person we’re testing is the student that was ill, and they weren’t ill at practice,” Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak said. “None of the initial screening showed anything. And we don’t know if it’s a COVID related case, but we want to give people as much information as we can”
The summer program has not been cancelled all together but has been placed on hold until additional information becomes available. It was also stressed that there is no reason to panic.
“Just like any situation, you’re going to err on the side of caution,” Athletics Director Chris Johnson said. “If we have to take four or five days off, then we have to take four or five days off. Like everybody else, it’s a big wait-and-see watching numbers, being cautious, being smart.”
The current pause with summer sports activities is a bellwether for the new normal that schools will be facing in the fall.
While the district has not finalized plans for reopening, it is more than likely that the district will be required to send any student with COVID-like symptoms home for a period of time.
What impact this will have on the sports program as a whole is still unknown. While the district is currently operating under the assumption that fall sports will continue, the reality of increasing COVID-19 cases in Oregon may put certain fall sports in jeopardy.
“Honestly, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news — and I don’t want to be a pessimist — but unless things get better real quick, I would say that this fall has a slim chance of playing football,” Siuslaw High School football coach Sam Johnson said.
Beginning last week, the football team began voluntary practices following guidelines provided by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA), which didn’t include any specific requirements, however.
“The OSAA never officially had jurisdiction over the summer, so their thinking is that it’s not really up to them what communities [decide to] do,” Chris Johnson said. “They have pretty much said that what schools are doing with their off season is going to be a school-by-school, county-by-county decision based on what their numbers are from infections.”
At the time, with the confirmed case numbers in Florence low, an interest in getting sports going again was high.
“Everybody’s rooting for everything to get back to normal,” Chris Johnson said. “It’s difficult for coaches and athletes because, if we are going to have sports, there is obviously a lot of desire to prepare ourselves to be as successful as we can be. Off-season work is the hallmark of a program.”
Football, cross country and cheer have been practicing, and basketball was set to begin practices in a matter of days. The practices were completely voluntary, with students required to sign waivers.
“People were going through the waiver process with an understanding that there was a certain amount of risk inherent in being out and around people in public,” Grzeskowiak said.
OSAA still has not released recommendations and guidelines for the fall, as it is still waiting on the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to release its final recommendations at the end of July.
“I don’t think people understand what school administrators are going through right now,” Chris Johnson said. “They’re working on the fly, trying to create a brand new system.”
However, both ODE and OSAA did release sample guidelines for schools to at least get a sense of what the school year could look like. This includes maintaining physical distance between students, limiting the amount of students in a classroom, completing health screenings before stepping onto school grounds, and breaking students up into “cohorts” or “pods” — small groups — to help prevent infection.
Siuslaw took the recommendations to heart when establishing its summer voluntary program.
“We’ve done our due diligence, we have waivers and plans, cleaning priorities and cohorts. We’re trying to keep people safe and hoping for the best, and that things can get back to normal in the fall.”
For football, students were broken up into cohorts of 10, with each group overseen by a coach. One cohort would work in the weight room flipping tires and throwing medicine balls, while other groups would learn offensive and defensive plays.
“For me, it was almost more helpful. It required us to be in small groups,” Sam Johnson said. “And having so many coaches that can do their job in small groups is really nice for us. We split the team in the middle, trying to keep all the varsity guys together, the JV guys together, and then each of those groups we split in half again.”
When outside, larger groups were allowed as the virus spreads more slowly in outdoor settings.
“We tried to keep our defensive guys together in a weight room, so that when they were on the field — if they were in the same proximity — they were still in the small group,” Sam said. “Technically, they were all one pod outside.”
That helped with running plays.
“We had Elijah [Blankenship] at quarterback throw a ball and, if it touched someone else, that person would sanitize their hands. We would sanitize every ball that was thrown,” Sam Johnson said.
But they also had to limit contact.
“In summer, there’s a contact with the ball because they don’t have pads on. It’s seven-on-seven,” Sam said. “That was just something we completely eliminated. We said, ‘We understand that you could break up this pass right now, but we don’t need you to because of the social distancing.’ It’s tough for them because their natural instinct is, ‘I need to go break this play up.’ But we were whistling early to stop the play.”
The regulations were difficult to get around, but also necessary.
“You just want to let loose and do what we do normally in the summer but understanding that the kids’ safety is much more important than getting through offensive plays and defensive stuff,” Sam Johnson. said.
Before a student comes to practice, they are required to report any possible symptoms of COVID to coaches. Throughout the first week, none of the football players had symptoms. But then on Sunday, the school got a call.
“An athlete reported flu-like symptoms to their coach,” Grzeskowiak said. “They said they were going to get tested Monday, so I directed the coaches to inform anyone in that cohort that one of their teammates was reporting flu-like symptoms, and we wouldn’t know anything until testing results came in.”
The results can take up to 48 hours to come in. In the interim, all summer practices — from football to cheer — were put on hold until the test results came back.
The reason for telling students that a teammate had symptoms was to allow them to keep safe.
“When Lane County does their contact tracing, they don’t notify people until after they have a positive test result,” Grześkowiak said. “We advise people to self-isolate until the tests are known. That way they have 24-48 hours to modify their behavior prior to knowing the test results.”
If the result does come back positive, the next step would be for Lane County to test all students in the voluntary cohort for COVID. If it comes back negative, then the practices can resume.
While the district is still waiting for final ODE guidelines to solidify reopening plans, if Siuslaw decides to reopen its doors in any capacity, there will most likely be frequent disruptions whenever any student— athlete or not — presents COVID like symptoms.
“If we don’t then it’s not responsible,” Grzeksowiak said. “Part of our school protocols next fall is how to deal with what may or may not be a COVID infection. Our plan has been to have a short-term distance learning component for kids that are not on campus. If there is a localized outbreak, we would shut down for at least a week, if not two. And then looking at how that might cycle within a group, that could easily translate to three to four weeks where we have to have this short-term plan for bouncing back from onsite to offsite.”
And these incidences will most likely start off early.
“Any time kids get together at the start of a school year, we see a huge uptick in the flu and colds,” Sam Johnson said. “There’s going to be flu-like symptoms. We do have to shut down.”
It’s an issue that schools across the state will be dealing with.
“There’s a lot of places, like Washington County, where they can’t get together at all because they’re under restrictions,” Chris Johnson said. “One of the things I try and tell coaches is, number one, the better we can do as a school and as a community at staying safe with their kids social distancing when they can and staying home when they can, the better chance we can hold off any major outbreaks.”
To do that, students will have to ensure they take precautions outside school grounds.
“I can’t tell someone how to live their lives,” Chris Johnson said. “But what I tell my cross country kids is, ‘Listen, if some of you get sick, we’re going to have to go home for a while. You have to do what you have to do and live your life and do what your mom and dad tell you to do. But the safer you can stay — and if we all stay healthy — the better chance we have that this will work.’”
But cross country has certain advantages when it comes to COVID restrictions — a limited non-contact sport played in meets, where the exclusion of one or two schools won’t affect the entire outcome. Football is a different story.
“I think it’s unrealistic to say we’ll have a football season if every time there are symptoms to something, we have to shut down,” Sam Johnson said. “You can’t really take two weeks off in the middle of a football season and expect to come back normal.”
And if one school is required to take two weeks off, it will affect the entire schedule.
“The reality of it is, somebody’s going to get sick at some school in the state and the program is going to have to shut down for a couple of weeks,” Sam Johnson said. “That then affects another team. It’s a domino effect.”
For the summer, getting students into practice and keeping hopes alive for a fall season is difficult for Sam Johnson.
“My opinion on this has changed so much,” he said. “I’m not trying to string it along, and it’s tough for me to say that. I’m more worried about getting over coronavirus and see if we could possibly play in the spring — or push all sports back. As a community, a state and as a country, I think we just need to get over coronavirus before we worry about all the extra stuff. I’m just ready to be done with this.”
That’s not a sentiment that he takes lightly. Sam Johnson bleeds blue and gold. His family has a long history of coaching and playing Siuslaw football, and Sam himself has credited the sport with instilling values he still lives by today. To him, high school football isn’t an extracurricular activity — it’s a vital stepping stone to becoming an adult. But his outlook on COVID restrictions shifted after speaking with a coach in Eugene.
“In our football minds of getting everything to work we thought, ‘Let’s just have every kid sign a waiver,’” he recalled. “You already had to do that for the workouts. So, then you have them sign a football waiver that says, ‘If I get sick, I understand the risk.’ That’s a risky position to put parents and kids in. I wouldn’t ask anybody to put their kids in that position. Our number one job is to keep the kids safe. Right now, if we’re compromising our number one belief as a coaching staff, that doesn’t work for us.”
Update: The student with "flu-like" symptoms tested negative for COVID-19. The program is expected to begin again this week.