For high school athletes like Luke Loehding, in previous summers, “getting to prepare for our football season is an opportunity that many of us took for granted,” he said.
But this year, for months, the COVID-19 pandemic left the future of school activities uncertain. And ever since Jeffco Public Schools announced on June 5 that it would reintroduce athletics and activities over the summer, district athletes have a renewed perspective on summer training.
“Summer workouts mean an opportunity to get back to some semblance of normal life,” said Loehding, a senior and football player at Dakota Ridge High. “We now get the chance to build team chemistry and develop as a team, rather than individual players.”
Returning in steps
Jeffco’s phase-in of athletics and activities began June 22 with a weeklong phase called Step 1, which limited outdoor practice areas to 25 students and indoor areas to 10.
Also in Step 1, all equipment was required to be sanitized after each individual use and equipment was not to be shared, which meant players could not pass a ball to one another. Common areas could not be used and masks were required indoors.
Throughout every phase, crowd sizes have been controlled by asking fall sport athletes to attend conditioning only one Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and athletes for all other sports attending Tuesdays and Thursdays.
From June 29 through July 11, athletes participated in Step 2 of the process, in which up to 50 players could be in an outdoor space and 25 indoors. This phase set out differing guidelines for “low risk”, “moderate risk” and “high risk” sports, as defined by sports associations including the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA).
A six-foot distancing requirement and intermittent equipment sanitization have remained a constant through Step 2 and into Step 3, which the district introduced on July 13. Under the current schedule, Step 3 will last at least until July 25.
In Step 3, low- and moderate-risk sports have resumed as normal while all other sports — football, cheerleading, ice hockey and wrestling — still must abide several modifications.
Coaches for these sports have been asked to arrange for “modified contact drill work and conditioning done in smaller groups of 5-10 spread throughout the practice area,” the Jeffco plan says. This prohibits full contact drills in football but allows for modified contact. Live wrestling is still prohibited.
Though the guidelines in every phase apply to every Jeffco school, every athletic director and coach has some autonomy in what practice looks like, said Patrick Simpson, Columbine High’s athletic director.
Surrounding schools have shared different ideas with one another, such as having players wear gloves when completing drills that require them to pass or hand off equipment, so that those policies are also widespread throughout Jeffco.
At Columbine specifically, there has also been a heightened focus on drills that can be completed individually, Simpson said. Footballs are sanitized whenever they are not being used and players have been asked to wash their hands after every touchdown.
But despite a widespread commitment to health and safety, he added that the transition has required many hours of planning and preparation.
“These are really challenging parameters for any sport,” he said. “I was a little worried the kids wouldn’t want to do it, but I was so wrong on that. They’ve been unbelievable at understanding this and they’ve just lit up being together.”
Matt Heckel, the athletic director at Dakota Ridge, also said he has seen how important it is for the school’s athletes to be able to get together again.
“It’s not only about the physical activity, it’s also the mental component. I think that’s the most important part of it,” he said. “Our community, and that means parents, players and coaches, they need this positive interaction. Our coaches are positive role models and sense-makers for these kids.”
There is another phase of the plan, Step 4, that has not yet been implemented. Step 4 was initially planned to run from July 27 to Aug. 8, allowing for a full return to normal workouts for all sports, with symptom screening and equipment sanitization still required.
But Simpson said with the current conditions of the pandemic, he and other athletic directors are not sure that the district will move past Step 3 before the beginning of the school year. Jeffco classes are scheduled to begin the week of Aug. 24.
Awaiting news about fall sports season
As of July 17, the state of Colorado had not yet decided what high school sports, if any, will be able to have their fall season. CHSAA has submitted plans to the governor’s office and is awaiting feedback, Simpson said.
In the meantime, he said he is optimistic and hopeful that sporting events will be able to come back.
“The better this plan works, the higher likelihood of us playing our season,” he said.
The student athletes share in that optimism and, after months of focusing on the pandemic, they say they’re trying to stay focused on the potential season ahead.
“I am hoping that this upcoming football season will be a great experience and a memorable season for everyone on the team,” said senior Dakota Williams, a Dakota Ridge football player. “I am excited because I feel that we have a chance to win a championship this year, and I’m also hoping to leave a legacy that others can look up to.”