In recent weeks, athletic directors, principals, school superintendents and local health officials from all over Northeast Tennessee have been meeting to figure out how to get high school sports restarted.
Now they have formulated a plan that every school east of Hamblen County will follow as they get ready to start summer workouts in the coming weeks.
The plan to get all area schools operating under the same procedures while returning to action for the first time since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic was brought forward by Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner, who is also on the TSSAA’s Legislative Council.
The Northeast Tennessee Return Action Plan states that its three goals are to maintain safe and healthy communities, to position our region for a return for normal school activities and to safely return students and instructors to school activities.
“We are trying to execute a plan together and work together as school systems,” Greeneville athletic director Brad Woolsey said. “We want to have a plan that gets our kids back to their activities safely. We want to keep the community safe. We don’t want to do anything that will hinder us from getting back to school in the fall, and we want to get our kids back to activities, not just physically but socially and psychologically.
“We want to get the best work in that we can while we keep our kids and our communities safe.”
The principals and athletic directors from Chuckey-Doak, North Greene, South Greene and West Greene met with superintendent David McLain and local health officials and have agreed to start their summer activities beginning June 1. That is pending approval from the Greene County School Board during its May 28 meeting. Greenville High School is looking at similar starting dates, but has not decided on a date yet.
“I think we as athletic directors and principals and Mr. McLain feel that this is a good plan for us in Greene County and we hope to get going on June 1,” North Greene athletic director James Buchanan said. “It will end up being a whole lot of work to not get to do much, but doing not much is better than doing nothing. We have kids that are hungry and want to improve, and this gives them that opportunity.”
To ensure the safety of athletes and coaches, all local teams will be making significant changes to their summer workouts and practices. Most notably teams will be working in groups of 10 people, likely nine athletes with one coach.
“We don’t know how exactly everything will pan out, but initially we want to have at least four different zones where we are working with nine kids and one coach,” Woolsey said. “That will be the practice field in front of the high school and also Burley Stadium. We will divide those in half with a buffer zone between them.
“Those groups will not mix. Those same nine kids will work with the same coach each workout over the next several weeks. We will stagger start times as well so we don’t have kids coming and going at the same time.”
All athletes will maintain six feet of distance between each other at all times during workouts. A key part of that will be working out with less weight to ensure spotters are not needed while lifting. It will also mean more strength-and-conditioning work and individual skill work instead of team activities.
Even in parking lots, students will be assigned a space and will be required to park in the same spot every day to help maintain distance. Locker rooms will be closed and even bathroom breaks will be one at a time.
Upon arrival every day, athletes and coaches will have their temperature checked and they will have to answer a series of health and symptom questions, which will be documented each day. Anyone who has a temperature of 100 degrees or greater will be sent home, and must remain fever free for three consecutive days before returning to team activities.
No equipment will be shared between athletes before it is properly sanitized. That might mean each basketball player has an assigned ball for the day’s use. When using indoor facilities, the facility must be cleaned before the next group uses it.
While many of these restrictions will be difficult, Buchanan thinks that it is good that all area schools are using the same plan. Not only will it put everybody on a level playing field, but it will hopefully keep area athletes healthy and on schedule to start the school year on time.
“The TSSAA left it up to each school system, and we know that there are some school systems that had spring football, and some that have started summer workouts already,” Buchanan said. “At the same time, our kids want to and expect to be competitive. You can’t do that if you can’t put in the same amount of work as your opponent.
“We feel like if we are responsible our kids can get back to work, and they will be doing the same things as most of our opponents. I’ve had zero parents reach out because they were worried about us practicing, but I’ve had multiple parents ask when we are going to be able to do something. I think if you can go to a restaurant or to a movie then we can safely go to a gym and shoot basketballs.”
According to the Jackson Sun, West Tennessee schools Milan, Peabody and Union City were the first in the state to begin summer activities, starting May 11. Maryville and Alcoa began their summer workouts on Monday, and other schools around the state are looking at May 26 as a start date.
State regulations and CDC recommendations for COVID-19 are constantly changing and that will likely mean adjustments to these offseason procedures. The TSSAA’s mandated dead period will run from June 22 to July 6. It is a time when students are not allowed on campus for athletic purposes. Woolsey thinks that it is likely that after the dead period some restrictions might be lifted and competitive events like 7-on-7 football could begin.
“I think the expectation is that things will change,” Woolsey said. “Right now we are seeing cases level off or go down in the state, and the state is opening more things up. If that continues then I am hopeful that we are back to some kind of normalcy by July.
“We are planning to be going full bore by July, but of course that could change. My hope is that by July we will be able to compete again. I hope we will be back to that face-to-face contact.”