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As COVID-19 positives surge, summer workouts suspend across the Heart of Texas

When the University Interscholastic League (UIL) announced on May 22 that Texas high schools could resume strength and conditioning programs starting June 8, athletes, coaches and fans alike let out a collective sigh of relief believing it would be the first step in the return to normal.

Not so fast.

Since letting schools participate in voluntary strength and conditioning workouts, positive cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 disease have risen again across Texas and numerous Heart of Texas high schools have reported positives among their student-athletes. Consequently, some have decided to pause hosting workouts due to those positive cases, while others closed their doors due to concerns about COVID-19.

Although not all have student-athletes testing positive, schools in the Heart of Texas region suspending workouts include Axtell, Belton, Bosqueville, China Spring, Clifton, Waco Connally, Crawford, Gatesville, Hillsboro, La Vega, Mart, Meridian, Midway, Robinson, Waco and West with probably more to come.

Clifton ISD decided to temporarily close its facilities to students after learning a district employee had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. CISD Superintendent Andy Ball confirmed in a statement that the person who tested positive had contact with students and staff at the athletic department’s speed and power camp on June 17-18 and June 22-25.

“It has been brought to my attention that a district employee that has worked strength and conditioning camp has tested positive for COVID-19,” Ball said in a statement released Sunday on the school district website. “The employee has not returned to district property since testing positive.

“CISD will be taking steps to sanitize any school facilities where the individual recently accessed. We will continue to monitor this situation and will provide additional information as needed.”

Ball also pointed out that in accordance with state and national guidance, any person who attended the strength and conditioning camp during the listed dates should monitor their health for signs of symptoms, follow CDC guidelines for people who had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID19, and contact their primary care physician if they develop symptoms.

In light of the current trend, Meridian ISD and athletic director Wade Morton had already decided to play it safe last Thursday, closing down strength and conditioning workouts for the next two weeks, planning to start back up with Jacket Camp July 13.

“We were going to be off the week of July 6 and planned to work out three days this week,” Morton said. “But I went ahead and called off the next three days and gave them two weeks off.”

In the meantime, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a temporary pause of additional reopening phases last Thursday in hopes of avoiding a second shutdown.

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Gov. Abbott said. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”

Following the governor’s lead,  the UIL continued to dodge handing down a definitive ruling last week as well.

“As of now, there are no immediate updates regarding Summer Strength and Conditioning Instruction,” the UIL said in an official statement last week. “Per the UIL guidelines, participation in Summer Strength and Conditioning is optional and schools should take their local context into account when deciding whether to offer summer strength and conditioning on campus. Schools are encouraged to be vigilant and take every precaution to mitigate risk and keep their communities safe and healthy.”

“UIL continues to monitor CDC and other federal guidance related to COVID-19 to determine any potential modifications to UIL summer guidelines,” the UIL said in its official statement last week. “Any plans regarding UIL activities and events for the 2020-21 school year will be dependent upon guidance from local and state authorities and will be released by UIL when more information is available.”

But on Wednesday, July 1, all of that changed as the UIL issued a statement recommending schools to consider shutting down workouts for the next two weeks.

“In anticipation of the July 4 holiday and the potential for increased social interactions that could spread COVID-19, UIL is cecommending schools to consider closing summer workouts, rehearsals, practices and instruction between July 3-12, resuming Monday, July 13,” the UIL statement released Wednbesday afternoon said.

“For schools in areas experiencing community spread of COVID-19, this temporary suspension will reduce risk of exposure and provide an opportunity to review risk of exposure and provide an opportunity to review current plans and re-evaluate local context in order to make informed decisions moving forward.

“UIL will continue to work with state officials and monitor CDC and other federal guidance to determine any potential modifications to UIL summer guidelines.”

Coming out of a three-month long layoff, coaches were thrilled to reunite with their athletes June 8 for voluntary summer workouts, including strength and conditioning along with some sports-specific drills.

“We can’t wait to get back out there with the kids,” Clifton Cub athletic director and football head coach Chuck Caniford said before opening Speed & Power Camp 2020. “Working with kids is why we do what we do, and the last couple of months has been miserable not being able to work with them on a daily basis. The best part of my day is when the kids show up so I know I speak for all of our staff that we are ready to go on Monday.”

The UIL instituted a number of protocols for the workouts that separated them from a normal summer gathering. Schools had to have at least one staff member present for every 20 students in attendance. Water couldn’t be shared, and athletes needed to bring their own water bottles with them. Programs were required to have hand-washing or sanitizing stations readily available.

“Obviously, the protocols in place will change some of what we do at our workouts, but I think it may actually be a blessing because it’s going to force us to tap the brakes a little bit on how much we try to do every day,” Caniford said. “One of the most noticeable things that will be different is that we will be outside the entire time, with the exception of our volleyball and basketball skill sessions. 

“There are so many restrictions on what you can do in the weight room that it makes more sense for us to work outside, and I think we have a really good plan that will get them ready for the fall seasons. We are fortunate in that we have some equipment in our facility that is very conducive to use outside. That will enable us to get their movement back quickly. 

“When you are coming off of an extended layoff like this, you have to be very careful with your programming in order to minimize the risk of injury and progressively develop their strength and conditioning.” 

But after Caniford and other coaches around the Heart of Texas region put considerable thought and preparation into making the adjustments, it didn’t take long before the UIL started loosening some of its COVID-19 restrictions on summer high school workouts. Beginning June 22, the UIL allowed for 50 percent capacity on all indoor activities, including weightlifting sessions, up from the initial 25 percent restriction.

Additionally, the UIL dropped the 20-to-1 student-to-coach ratio. The limit on groups of students working together outdoors also increased from 15 to 25 June 22 with each group required to “maintain appropriate distance” from other groups. The UIL even downgraded equipment disinfection from a requirement to a strong suggestion.

And then, it all started going wrong.

In response to pushing the pause button, the Office of the Governor and University of Texas Head Football Coach Tom Herman released a new public service announcement (PSA) titled, “The Power of Teamwork” on Monday. In the PSA, Herman urges Texans to work together as a team to stop COVID-19.

“As Texans, we understand the power of teamwork whether it’s on or off the field,” Herman says on the PSA. “And right now, we need a team effort to stop COVID-19. We all have a responsibility to protect our health and the health of our loved ones. So make sure you do your part to slow the spread of COVID-19. Wash your hands, practice social distancing, of course wear a mask, and if you can, stay home. Together, we will beat COVID-19.”

Photos by DAVID HARDING & SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

(Originally published June 29, this post was updated at 7 p.m. July 1)

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