High school sports will restart next week with limited workouts taking place on campuses across the area — finally. And John Sullivan, the athletics director for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said the goal is a "progressive" return.
The school district on Monday will lift its dead period on sports initially enacted because of the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March by the N.C. High School Athletic Association. Practices will be limited to a maximum of 25 people, per Gov. Roy Cooper's guidelines for Phase Two of the three-part reopening process in North Carolina, extending until at least Aug. 7, and will be staggered within less than hourlong windows.
That kick-starts with a gamut of safety protocols set up by the school system for what will be conditioning workouts without equipment, including a forehead scan with an infrared thermometer and markings etched for socially distanced pre-practice stretching. It's not a one-size-fits-all plan, Sullivan noted Friday, as each campus is different — anything from enrollment to acreage and facilities available.
General guidelines, however, will be in effect for all high schools.
"We feel like we need to start slow," Sullivan said of the plan. "The first few weeks of conditioning only, with the first week or couple days being an evaluation — see where your athletes are.
"We've asked (the coaches) to assess their kids — see where they are — before we start, you know, pushing them let's say we would in a normal August. We can't come out of the gates, so we have to be smart about it."
Sullivan shared additional reasoning behind WS/FCS' decision July 27 to lift an indefinite postponement on limited workouts, enacted nearly two weeks ago because of rising coronavirus cases across North Carolina and the county. He said the district caught wind of athletes, in large groups, convening for practices. A shift to begin conditioning was a way to decimate those unregulated congregations and get athletes in front of coaches again.
"Some rogue things were going on — on the side, run by groups that weren't our coaches or our people," Sullivan said. "We felt like we needed to get a handle on some of the things going on around here, and the timing felt right."
But Forsyth athletes, coaches and staff will move ahead against the tide inside the county and inside the state.
North Carolina's seven-day average of the number of positive cases stood at 1,879 as of Friday, down from a high of 2,024 on July 18. The seven-day average has remained above 1,800 since July 12, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Forsyth County's number of confirmed cases per 100,000 people has risen steadily since May, climbing to a high of 1,195.5 in the county health department's most recent report July 25. Forsyth's total exceeds the North Carolina total of 1,087.6 positive cases per 100,000 people.
WS/FCS also is the largest district, with roughly 55,000 K-12 students, poised to begin limited workouts. Wake County Public School System, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Guilford County Schools — the top three systems in the state — remain in a holding pattern with indefinite delays, and so does Cumberland County Schools, the fifth-largest.
Tony Lo Giudice, the assistant health director for Forsyth County, said the department has held bi-weekly briefings for WS/FCS but also Wake Forest, Forsyth Tech and Winston-Salem State. He said no specific recommendations were given to the district in its decision to begin Monday's conditioning.
"We send our daily updates out, which they receive," Lo Giudice said. "They can see the numbers coming each day. They have representatives that also receive our weekly surveillance from our daily briefing list.
"... We have those bi-weekly calls, so they're getting a briefing from the health director (Joshua Swift), who typically talks about, 'This is what our case load has been over the past week, this is what the epidemiology and surveillance is showing.' We try to give them as up-to-date (numbers) and most live time as possible of what's occurring in Forsyth County so they can make the best decisions for their organization."
The district's plan, which is initially a stricter approach compared to Phase One guidelines for a reopening for sports released by the NCHSAA on June 8, limits workouts to 45 minutes per group of 25 people on a field or within a stadium. That number includes both players and coaches. In particular, Sullivan said football — one of seven sports dubbed an activity with a higher infection risk by the association in its safety protocols — has been strategically grouped based on differing workouts for each position.
According to Sullivan, players are asked to arrive 15 minutes before the start of a practice. Coaches will administer a screening for COVID-19 symptoms — a questionnaire handed down by the state. A screening checklist provided by the NCHSAA in its guidelines that requires a parents' signature must also be turned in upon arrival.
A forehead scan will be administered with an infrared thermometer. Each high school received three, 36 in total for the district, as a starting point, Sullivan said in early July. Coaches are required to wear facemasks at all times, which Sullivan added was the district's mandate before Cooper's announcement in June.
Players will wear masks when entering and exiting the facilities. "Backup" personal protective equipment was provided by Wake Forest Baptist Health, though Sullivan said players and coaches are encouraged to bring their own.
After admittance from a checkpoint, as Sullivan described, players make their way to individually marked areas — each distanced 6 feet apart — for stretching. Two virtual training sessions were held June 12 for athletics directors, principals and head coaches in the county. The sessions were recorded for any coaches handling limited workouts Monday.
Phase One will include only conditioning and heat acclimation. Frank Martin, the athletics director at Mount Tabor, said three sports — volleyball on the campus' tennis courts, football in the outfield of the softball complex and cheerleading taking place on the track at Bob Sapp Field — will train Monday morning. Boys soccer and field hockey athletes are scheduled to begin in the evening.
Martin said two trainers, Robert Hatch and Teresa Gentry, will be on hand.
"We'll certainly have a tent and have (athletes) go there," Martin said. "And they'll evaluate because they're going to be kind of hands-off because of limited exposure to them, in case we have a case of COVID. And they're there to handle those kinds of situations — whether it's an injury or lightheadedness or whatever."
According to Sullivan, who has participated in weekly meetings with city and county athletics directors from across the state roughly the past four months, players and coaches are expected to say if they test positive for COVID-19, since the district won't administer testing like college and professional programs.
A positive test would result in a high school collaborating with Sullivan and the Forsyth County Department of Public Health. Preventative measures include a 10- to 14-day quarantine that applies to a players' "pod" — a group of the same athletes training together daily, per the NCHSAA's guidelines — as well.
"The concern I think I have is just making sure everyone understands the safety rules," said Alexis McCoy of Reagan, who was one of four high school athletics directors on WS/FCS' "Back to School" Athletics committee that formulated the guidelines. "Because it's different. Usually you can come and go as you please. This is going to be more structured — you've got to check in, you've got to stand 6 feet apart.
"I think Monday, chaotic is not the right word, but it will be an educational day just like the first day of school where you're going to have to learn how to do things. There will be corrections that need to be made, and I think this is going to be a great educational piece for these student-athletes because, hopefully, they're going to see that we can do this if we do it right."