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Athletic trainers take on new roles as high school sports adapt in COVID-19 world

Athletic trainers take on new roles as high school sports adapt in COVID-19 world

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Heritage’s Chris Hallberg stood outside the school after football practice one morning last week and talked behind his mask about all the changes that have taken place since the coronavirus pandemic began.

For the athletic trainer, and others like him across the area, work has been fundamentally altered. Gone are the defined parameters that used to come with the job. Nowadays an athletic trainer like Hallberg fills many roles — chief among them a new one, which requires doing everything he can to combat the spread of COVID-19 and make sure athletes remain healthy as they return to practices governed by new guidelines and defined by precautions few could have imagined in high school sports prior to the spring.

Hallberg’s job now means arriving early in the morning to clean surfaces and door handles, railings and fences. It means requiring every athlete to be screened for the virus upon arrival at school. It means refilling disinfection supplies, making sure athletes are practicing physical distancing guidelines and wearing masks while indoors, cleaning again and again.

Those are just the new duties that don’t include the more typical role of caring for and guarding against injuries.

At Heritage, football players spread out in small groups across the artificial turf field and the baseball field. Sanitation stations are everywhere. If someone shows up with a fever, he or she is immediately sent home after undergoing a private, daily screening in the school’s parking lot. After practice, players go separate ways — no congregating is allowed. Weights get disinfected after every use. And as of this week, Lynchburg City schools could not use equipment, like footballs.

That’s what it takes to practice — just to practice — in 2020.

“There’s no school doing what we’re doing right now,” Hallberg said of the steps Heritage has taken to stay safe. “We’re going so far above and beyond. ... I think we’ve proven we can do this efficiently. I think we’re a pretty well-oiled machine.”

There’s hope for a season, still, although it will be altered.

The Virginia High School League recently announced a model that moves football to the late-winter and spring and allows all sports to be played during the school year. No games of any kind can be held until late December.

At Heritage, where football, boys and girls basketball, track and wrestling are all being practiced right now, Hallberg has seen an improvement in the demeanor of athletes. The days of kids piling into his office with physical concerns are over. But Hallberg looks into their faces from afar and sees a difference.

“You could see some of them had gained weight, some of them didn’t seem to be in a good head space,” he said of when athletes arrived at practice last month after months of lockdown.

“They had no socialization, so they’re so happy to be back here with each other and working out. We have two athletes who, between the two of them, have lost 20 pounds. They’re looking better, they seem, from the first day to now, like totally different people.

“They’re more engaged, they seem happier, they’re more positive.”

Jen Armstrong, athletic trainer at E.C. Glass, said a large part of being able to return to practices was educating people about the virus — including athletes, parents, coaches, volunteers, teachers and administrators.

Every person involved had to receive “educational training.”

“There are still a lot of unknowns about the virus,” she said, “but we wanted everyone to be as comfortable as they could with returning to activity.”

Armstrong, who chairs an LCS subcommittee on athletics and extracurricular activity, said all coaches had to submit to the division a program specific to their sport to be approved before practices could begin.

Armstrong has spent months researching COVID-19 and learning how to approach the disease from the standpoint of an athletic trainer. Research and information about the disease has changed rapidly, she noted, meaning she has to be all the more vigilant in her studies.

“You worry about student-athletes all the time,” she said. “That’s our number one priority: How can we keep everyone safe? And now you’re dealing with the world of a pandemic. ... The athletic training role is now, for lack of a better word, an infectious disease expert, a COVID overseer.”

High schools face a number of challenges as they begin what will be a long journey toward an uncertain season, with plans that could continue to evolve. School districts don’t have the advantage of a pro sports bubble to protect athletes.

“There are a lot of variables,” Armstrong said. “But I think the best thing that we can do is mitigate the risks as best we can at our facilities.”

For now, she said, the focus is getting athletes back in shape by conducting conditioning drills. Most are excited to be back doing what they love, she added.

At Heritage, where Hallberg began working on plans with football coach Brad Bradley in April, one goal is to encourage athletes to be smart if they go out in public. Wear a mask, don’t linger in enclosed spaces, practice social distancing. There’s no guarantee of a season, he noted, so athletes have to take measures to stay safe if they want to play.

And in Pioneer Country — where doors inside the school are propped open and locker rooms, water fountains and shared spaces are off limits — there’s hope that being vigilant will lead to a football season.

“These kids, what else are they gonna do?” Hallberg said.

“If you’re not coming to school, you’re learning online. Or they’re sitting staring at a screen or playing video games. Some of them may not have transportation to go get a job or money to take an Uber if they did get a job. So what are they gonna do? They need each other.”

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