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Athletic Directors Leading Through COVID-19 Pandemic

By Dr. David Hoch, CMAA on May 13, 2020 hst Print

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Derek England, CAA, director of athletics, Hoboken (New Jersey) High School, and Tom Dyer, director of athletics, Hamden (Connecticut) High School, regarding some of the steps they have taken as athletic directors since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March.

Question: When you were first directed by your governor, the state education department or state athletic association that the athletic program would be suspended or postponed for a few weeks, what were your first thoughts? What initially did you do, besides gasp?

England: Everything happened very quickly, and it was definitely surreal. At first, school districts in New Jersey had to consider creating remote learning plans “just in case.” By Thursday afternoon, March 12, three of our league’s 15 schools announced that they were closing for a week or two and all 15 schools closed on Friday.

Via a conference call on Friday afternoon, the league executive committee agreed we wouldn’t cancel any regular-season games yet, but we would wait for an update by the governor. Before I left the office, I emailed the league members, my coaches and our official assignors with the message that everyone should sit tight and I’d be in touch the following week.

Dyer: We were closely following the news concerning the beginning stages of the virus and I am not sure anyone thought it was going to be this serious. Our state association, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, pulled the plug on our winter playoffs on Tuesday, March 10. We still had four teams that had playoff games scheduled that week and I felt horrible for our student- athletes – particularly the seniors.

Immediately, I started to scramble, getting in touch with my coaches so they could arrange team meetings with their athletes. Two days later, our school shut down and a few days later the state did the same. Our state association took a beating with its decision originally, but in hindsight, the state office made the right call.

Question: With schools closed, how do you communicate with the various segments of your program such as coaches, athletes, parents and the community at-large? How often do you provide updates or get in touch with everyone?

England: Text messages, phone calls, emails and social media platforms such as Twitter, Google Hangouts and/or Zoom were all utilized. Also, our superintendent and principal have been great, and they communicated daily via email and YouTube videos. With all of these mediums, we were able to communicate all pertinent information to student-athletes and parents.

At this point, I touch base with coaches and our league athletic directors, as the president, once a week. Also, I speak daily with the executive committee of our league.

Dyer: Immediately, we drafted a letter to post on our website so parents could get accurate information regarding the situation. At Hamden High School, we also have a twitter account @AthleticsHamden that we use to communicate things to parents and athletes. In addition, our school has a weekly email that our principal sends out on to all parents, and the Athletic Department has a spot on it to post essential information.

Our district also sends out a letter from the Athletic Department to the entire district, which would be similar to what is used in the event of emergencies. We provided updates for everyone early that week as to where we stood with everything and the hope that we would return to school and start our spring athletic seasons. Another email will be sent next week and we will also update our website.

Question: Student-athletes should not be gathering in groups to practice even though the athletic program is shuttered. This should be done to help mitigate the spread of the virus, but also without coaching supervision, school facilities and equipment, the risk of injury is immense. How do you monitor and prevent these sessions from occurring?

England: Our coaches stay in touch with student-athletes through Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, Zoom, “Remind” and Team Reach. Since Hudson County also closed down parks, basketball courts and playing fields, it is pretty much impossible for our student-athletes to get together for unofficial practice sessions.

Dyer: Currently, our athletic department has been posting videos through our Twitter account of weight-training exercises that athletes can do at home to remain in shape. Some brilliant coaches from around the country created these tools and we share them. In addition, coaches may also support their student-athletes with exercise advice or simply offer support. Overall, our coaches are trying to help our athletes maintain hope for their spring season.

Question: Assuming that uniforms and equipment have already been issued to athletes in spring sports, how do you safely and effectively collect everything if the season is cancelled?

England: That’s a great question. It will depend on if we return this year or if we are kept in quarantine through the summer. I’ve been in touch with our equipment manager and she has been in touch with our coaches about this concern. We are aware of what equipment has been distributed, but Hudson County has been hit hard by this virus. Thinking about outstanding equipment is the last thing our student-athletes and their families should be worried about right now. We will have contingency plans in place for collection and will look to health officials for guidance about sanitation and cleaning of the equipment.

Dyer: We were in the winter sports season still when the season was called. My coaches met with the student-athletes the day after their team meetings to collect all uniforms. There is one team that did not do this and we will set up a collection time for student-athletes to come to the school to do a drive-by drop-off of their uniforms when it is safe for them to do so.

Question: What are some of the unexpected things that you have had to deal with as an athletic administrator while working from home?

England: There are so many things that are new. But one that comes to mind is that several of our student-athletes are going to play at the collegiate level next year. Having to deal with the NCAA Eligibility Center, requests for transcripts by college coaches and everything else involved with recruiting is very unique.

Commonly, I would call students or coaches to my office and walk them over to the Guidance Office. Now, it involves a coordinated effort of phone calls, text messages, emails and scanning documents. The other day, I spoke with an NCAA Division I baseball coach, and he explained that this is his new “normal,” which is anything but normal.

Dyer: Our family is great and very supportive of my work. In addition, my wife is an assistant principal with her own work to be completed at home and we also have a three-year-old running around the house who wants our attention every minute.

Working around both of our schedules can be challenging at times and is extremely different from being in school. Another issue is that not all of our files are electronic, and we do not have access to certification information, and the payment for a few officials or workers at games will be slightly delayed.

Question: With the Coronavirus and the complications of postponing the spring season, how do you remain calm, positive and safe? After all, everyone associated with your program and your family needs your leadership. How do you accomplish this?

England: Having been in athletics and serving in a leadership role has prepared me, as much as possible, for this situation. As much as we want to be organized, we also have to be flexible and expect the unexpected. This pandemic is the ultimate test of patience, flexibility and dealing with unique circumstances. We just have to do the best we can on a daily basis with the hand we are dealt, and control what we can control.

Personally, I simply try to keep myself in a good mental place, make sure my family is OK and safe, stay in touch with friends and colleagues as much as possible, and get some exercise. If I do these things, I may be able to help others.

Dyer: I agree, control what you can. We have to have faith that our teachers, coaches and families have prepared our student-athletes for this crazy life event. As an athletic director, it is important to serve as a role model as to how we want our athletes to respond.

This situation will end at some point and we should try to be fully prepared for what happens next by analyzing and planning. In the meantime, stay positive and avoid negative feelings, because it will not help. Also, look at this situation as an opportunity to spend more time with your family and to reach out to friends.

Question: How are you better prepared to handle the pandemic situation if it reappears during the fall or winter seasons? What lessons did you learn?

England: With every passing day, I think that we learn a little more and understand what is happening. I hope, everyone – from health officials, first responders, coaches, student-athletes and parents – will be better prepared should it reappear. Learning from our experiences and mistakes is critical.

Personally, I will require (in the past I only recommended) all my coaches to have some method of virtual group communication – Google Classroom or Team Reach – to be in place prior to the next season. Having gone through this, I don’t think it’s enough for coaches to only have emergency contact information for student- athletes.

Dyer: It is said that experience is the best teacher, and I have been fortunate to speak with the 23 athletic directors in our conference about what they are doing. Every day, I am taking something different and unique from them, and looking to see if we can implement it.

If you have time now, or over the summer, reflect on the situation. There are many great ideas out there from around the country that you might be able to use in your program. If you use this time wisely, you should be better prepared if the virus reappears.