School may not be face-to-face quite yet, but the return of high school sports a month ago have given students a much-anticipated sense of normalcy.
“They’re just enjoying the ability to do something rather than sit at home,” said Cliff Wong, Marshall High School’s track & field coach.
“It’s their engagement with their friends outside the computer,” said Chris Carrico, George Mason High School’s girls basketball coach. “I know they’re 100 percent excited about playing, mainly because they got tired of competing against each other for the first month in practice.”
The winter sports season began for all Virginia high schools shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday, but Fairfax County Public Schools started playing games the week before Christmas while Falls Church schools started their games just after the new year. Unsurprisingly, there’s been a lot of changes making sure that students are free to participate given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
For one, there’s mandatory screening protocols for all the students before each game. Mason’s Director of Student Activities, Marvin Wooten, said that screening consists of a daily temperature check as well as a list of questions asking about Covid-19 symptoms and if they know anyone exposed to the virus. Joe Swarm, the head of Marshall High’s activities, said similar precautions are in place for Fairfax schools.
The only difference between the two is the mask requirement. For Marshall and all Fairfax County athletes, masks must be worn at all times. For Mason, it’s only during practices and meetings — games are optional.
According to Carrico, Mason’s girls basketball coach, the varsity girls made the decision as a team to wear their masks during games, even though many opponents they face are maskless. He said many have already gotten used to it so they decided to keep up the custom in place.
Swarm at Marshall, on the other hand, has been strict about policing mask usage in the sports that are required to use them.
“Sometimes I worry that my coaches and the students are going to get frustrated with me or the staff just because it is a constant reminder,” Swarm said. “For example, at the basketball game we hosted the other night, some of the kids had the masks dropping below their nose. I almost had to stop the game and say, ‘Guys, I will pull if you don’t fix your masks. I’m gonna stop the game.’ And that’s going to be the end of it, because we’re not taking any chances.”
While basketball and track require students to wear masks at all times — even during outdoor meets that track has switched to for the winter season — gymnastics, wrestling and swimming don’t during their contests.
Participation has been hit or miss, depending on the sport. Wong, Marshall’s track coach, said that his numbers dropped from its usual 150 – 200 kids down to around 100, with mostly returning athletes making up the roster. However Alex Mostoller, Marshall’s gymnastics coach, said that gymnastics actually had more students coming out for her team. Carrico said that he maintained a 14-woman roster for his basketball team, with a large amount of returners coming back as well, but Swarm said that Marshall doesn’t have a freshman girls basketball team for the first time in memory.
Meghan Wallace, Mason’s swimming coach, also said her program experienced a drop in participation. But a bit more striking to her was that there even was a sports season to begin with.
“Being a teacher, I was so confused as to why we could have sports but kids could not be in the classroom,” Wallace said. “It was definitely an adjustment for me to get that through my mind and be happy about having a season.”
Could sports provide a template for a safe return to schools? Swarm doesn’t think they should be. He said constantly monitoring the protocols and making sure each detectable risk is being averted is exhausting. The reason he continues to do it is because he knows how good it is from a mental wellness standpoint for the students, which he sees at home with his own teenage children.
So even though this is a welcome addition to their students’ lives, it comes with an added burden of making sure the season is completed.
“The responsibility is on them really,” Carrico said. “It’s basketball, home, and that’s it. We’re one person away from testing positive to call off the season, and the girls know that.”