The Dilemma of Dealing with COVID for Track Teams and Keeping Everyone Safe

by Kristen Hislop

Whose guidance do you follow on COVID procedures? I’ll start by saying that as we all know guidance is changing daily and what might have been current when it was written will likely have changed by the time you read it! It is incumbent on each of us to take charge of our worn health as well as protect those around us.

Runner’s World published an article in August 2020 on how to run safely during COVID. They tapped a few doctors who all agreed that running alone outside is the best way to avoid risk and that 30-60 minutes of moderate to hard activity will boost your immune system. At the time CDC guidelines suggested wearing mask when around others not in your household and of course hand washing, maintaining physical distance (6-12 feet) and staying home when experiencing any symptoms.

From those guidelines you can look further at each state. As you might imagine running is not a major category covered in the NY State Department of Health materials. With groups in NY limited to 50 (both indoors and outdoors) it has put a damper on events as we know it.

On April 15, 2020, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.17. As a result, effective at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 17, 2020, any individual who is over age two and able to medically tolerate a face-covering shall be required to cover their nose and mouth with a mask or cloth face-covering when in a public place and unable to maintain, or when not maintaining, social distance.

Understanding what might make sense for us to follow, we can take a look at collegiate and high school running.

Over the summer the collegiate seasons were decided by conferences. In early July the Ivy League conference announced they were suspending all fall sports leaving the option to move fall sports to the spring of 2021. One by one other conferences followed suit. Most collegiate cross country teams were able to practice based on following buildings set by the county and school. University at Buffalo tested each athlete and placed them in a ‘pod.’ The pods were based on housing. Each time the pods were tested they were allowed to combine, so two pods became one. The athletes were allowed to strength train inside based on a strict schedule that allowed for extensive cleaning between pods. Each athlete answered a COVID questionnaire and had their temperature taken before entering the building. With most classes virtual the student interaction stayed pretty much among the teammates. Many of the NY college teams are following the same type of protocols including masks at all times on campus (inside or out). While there are no competitions many of the schools are now to a point where they can have the men’s team or women’s team working out together. Team time trials have replaced invitationals and the focus is on academics, staying healthy and building a better/stronger run base.

Let’s take a look at high school running. The high school seasons are guided by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Inc. (NYSPHSAA). According to the website NYSPHSAA is a non-profit, voluntary, educational service organization composed of public, parochial, and private schools dedicated to providing equitable and safe competition for the students of its member schools. NYSPHSAA puts on the state championships for each sport. Guidance is sent down the Section level. NY State has 11 sections, we are Section 2 encompassing the Capital District region. There are further breakdowns, but for running and COVID, we will stop here.

Before NYSPHSAA could make any determinations on school sports they had to wait for guidance from Governor Cuomo on schools opening. That came on August 24 when Cuomo said low risk sports (cross country) could begin on September 21. Low risk sports had been determined earlier by the NY State Department of Health (DOH) and included individual running and cross country running. DOH set the following guidelines (among many others for sporting activities):

  • no more than two spectators per player
  • 6 feet of distance or if not possible then a face covering is required
  • no physical interaction for payments
  • 6 feet of space must be designated between participants
  • communications about hand washing/face coverings etc.
  • screening practices either before or at the site.

Many of the Shenendehowa runners participated in a training program over the summer with the following guidelines:

While at practice: 

1. Athletes must arrive at practice wearing a face mask and properly wear a face mask before and after running. 

2. Athletes will arrive at practice wearing an athletic hat with a brim. (The combination of the face mask and hat is geared towards keeping as much of the face and front of head including eyes as covered and protected as possible).  [FYI hats are not required or mentioned in CDC or NY guidelines.]

3. Athletes will not openly mix as was the case in past years. Athletes will be assigned groups of approximately 5 students. The group of students will be labeled (letter, number, some Shen or Running etc.) Students will find their specific group and form a circle while maintaining 3-6 feet of distance from each other. Groups will maintain a distance of 6+ feet from other groups. 

4. Coaches will address training objectives with athletes. 

5. Staggered starts will be implemented for any stretching, drills, and running so that adequate distancing can be maintained. 

6. While running on any trails, students must maintain adequate distance from each other . If the trail is narrow, a maximum of two abreast will be allowed in rows. 

7. Follow pacing guidelines for practice and do not run off or intentionally try to catch up or pass another group. Staggered starts are to maintain social distancing guidelines. Any athlete who needs to stop for any reason must stop with their entire group. Groups are asked to stay a minimum 15-30 seconds apart from groups and maintain this if a group passes before starting up again. 

8. Athletes will keep their shirt on for the duration of practice. (For the male athletes)

9. Athletes will not share ANYTHING with another athlete during practice. 

Additional:  Consider asking the athletes not to spit during their runs.

Ask the athletes not to bring any equipment or extra belongings with them from home

If you have traveled out of state or country less than 72 hours before practice, please be cognizant that different areas are impacted differently at this time. Please discuss any recent travel with coaches to decide whether it is advisable to practice with the team. 

Please let the coaches know and do not participate if have a fever or do not have a fever but have had any of the follow within 72 hours of practice: 

  • A dry persistent cough
  • Any type of shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Runny nose or congestion (this makes it hard to breath and increases chances of droplet spread)

In addition, each athlete completed a form each morning answering COVID related questions.

Back to the start of the high school season. Over the summer NYSPHSAA stated that all regional and State championships for fall (and now fall 2) sports were cancelled. Now they had to come up with the guidelines for all of NY State to come back to the ‘allowed’ low risk sports.  In addition to DOH they came up with protocols for the schools around number of contests, how many practices needed to be completed before the first contest and other considerations. Those recommendations were then passed down to the Sections. Section 2 leadership met and agreed low risk sports could begin practice on September 21, 2020.

There is great information here for more details -

From there decisions went to each conference and then individual schools! While Bethlehem and Shenendehowa are in Suburban Council, they have different guidance for cross country meets and which sports are allowed to play. Field hockey is categorized as moderate risk and is being played at Shen, however the Board of Education of the Bethlehem district decided to only allow Varsity Cross Country (girls and boys), Varsity Girls tennis and Varsity Girls swimming. Shenendehowa added coaches and is allowing both Varsity and Junior Varsity girls and boys cross country.

On October 3rd Shen ran their first cross country meet against Bethlehem. Before each meet the coaches from both schools met to discuss their guidelines and how best to let the athletes run safely. The plan is then taken back to each Athletic Director who give their blessing. The guest team, Bethlehem, ran first. The boys went off at 9 am and the girls followed at 9:35. Once the Bethlehem athletes were off the course the Shen boys took the field. Varsity ran first followed by JV. Due to the number of athletes after the boys had cleared the course the girls started.

All kids were wearing masks. Spectators were limited to 2 per athlete and had to be wearing a Section 2 spectator pass and a face covering. Each was checked in by Shen staff and completed a screening. 

While it may seem tough to know what to do, taking a look at how the area high schools are handling the sport is great guidance. When the kids are off campus running in their small pods and when not around others, they can take a mask off. While on campus and in any group, they are wearing a mask. At any practice there a 6’ squares on the ground where the athletes hang out prior to warmups. They are responsible for bringing all their gear to practice and keeping it in the square. Before school and again for practice they complete a COVID screening.

Let’s model our behavior after the kids. Mask up when around others, screen yourself daily for symptoms, wash your hands often and most important - keep running.

Kristen Hislop Archive

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