Union Pines scrimmage

File photo of a full-contact scrimmage between Union Pines and Purnell Swett, Aug. 10, 2019 at Union Pines High School in Cameron,

Moore County’s three public high schools have developed plans for resuming limited conditioning workouts for fall sports teams once the central office gives the official go-head.

The school board’s decision last Tuesday to allow students to return to the classroom two days a week when schools open Aug. 17 clears the way for sports teams to hold workouts on campus, which could happen Aug. 3.

Each of the three high schools — Pinecrest, Union Pines and North Moore — formed athletic re-entry teams to develop plans for workouts to resume safely and adhere to N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) guidelines.

Pinecrest Athletic Director Jeff Hewitt, speaking on behalf of his two counterparts at Union Pines and North Moore, outlined those efforts during the school board meeting. He said the guidelines and safety protocols also apply for middle schools as well.

“Athletics are a huge part of our county,” Hewitt said at the outset of the presentation. “A lot of people want to know what we are doing. It has been a long time since March 13.”

That is when public schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, which ultimately wiped out spring sports about week after they got underway. Now midway through summer and with the opening of school approaching, the big question is what will happen with fall sports.

The NCHSAA lifted what it calls the “dead period” for sports on June 15 that allowed schools to resume limited conditioning workouts with strict safety protocols under phase one of its plan. But many counties opted to hold off, including Moore County.

Hewitt, who also serves as head baseball coach at Pinecrest, said in his presentation that nine of the 10 largest school districts in the state kept their athletic facilities closed. He said many coaches in Moore County have been using the Zoom platform to communicate with their student athletes on summer workouts and conditioning.

“Our coaches and student-athletes have been doing an unbelievable job,” he said. “I think when we get them back, they are going to be healthy. … We are asking them (students) to continue to keep their bodies in shape and take care of themselves.”

The NCHSAA delayed the start of fall sports competitions until Sept. 1, at the earliest. But Commissioner Que Tucker cautioned that is not set in stone.

Hewitt said the NCHSAA will prohibit informal workouts from being held the first five days schools are open.

“This will give us the opportunity to focus, as we should, on academics for our student-athletes to get into the classroom,” he said.

Normally, full practice would begin Aug. 1, with the voluntary conditioning workouts occurring prior to that date.

Hewitt said once the NCHSAA set a tentative date for fall sports competitions to begin, the three high schools moved “quickly” to develop plans for students to return to campus for conditioning workouts that meet all of the guidelines. Those teams included the athletic director and a certified athletic trainer, someone from administration and various department chairs. He said they did not include coaches.

“We did that for a reason,” he said. “We didn’t want to think like a coach. We wanted to think complete safety of what is going on. We didn’t want the Xs and Os to muddle what we were doing. We wanted to make sure that the safety of our kids was paramount.”

Pinecrest football practice

File photo of the first day of Pinecrest football practice in August 2019.

Hewitt said all of the coaches were then asked to prepare a plan for workouts much like a teacher does for instruction, which were then reviewed by the teams at each school. He said the workouts can last only 90 minutes, which starts when students check in each morning.

“We wanted to see if the coaches really understood the guidelines and how they were going to follow them,” he told the board. “We are really excited about our athletic re-entry teams. There is quite a bit we had to deal with.”

The teams discussed proper check-in of coaches and student-athletes, reviewed coaches’ plans for re-entry and what each practice would look like, discussed personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies and what would be needed for each coach to safely run a 90 minute workout.

Hewitt said it was also important for coaches to understand that this is not a normal start of a season and that the return-to-play must be paced in a slower manner due to the time off.

He said the NCHSAA guidelines for phase one of workouts cover a myriad of issues, including:

* Facilities cleaning;

* Entrance/exit strategies;

* Limitations on gatherings (maximum of 25 outside);

* Pre-workout monitoring;

* Exposure of an athlete, coach or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19;

* Face coverings;

* Hygiene practices; 

* Hydration; 

* Locker rooms and athletic training areas; 

* School weight rooms and matt areas; 

* Spectators; and 

* Athletic equipment.

Hewitt said the planning involved more than just coaches and the athletic staff; custodial staff are crucial.

“Facility cleaning is imperative for us,” Hewitt said. “Over the course of the summer, our custodial staff has done an unbelievable job.”

Hewitt said checklists have been developed for coaches and custodians for what must be done on a daily basis.

“When they (students) come on campus, we know our facilities will be clean,” he said.

Hewitt said under the current state restrictions, gatherings are limited to 25 people in outdoor settings, so coaches have to plan accordingly. The coach or an assistant coach working with a group is counted as part of the group.

He said coaches and the re-entry teams worked “tirelessly” on a plan for pre-workout monitoring and screening to maximize the amount of time available for the actual workouts.

“It is imperative that we get them in, get them screened, take their temperature and get them to the practice fields,” he said.

Hewitt said each coach has been provided an infrared thermometer to check students’ temperatures, and those temperatures will be recorded every day.

To expedite the check-in process, Hewitt said Pinecrest has developed a shared document that students can fill online using their Chromebooks each morning before coming to school to answer questions about whether they have experienced any symptoms or have had exposure to someone who has the virus.

He said that will cut down on the time students have to wait in line to come into the area where workouts take place and also help adhere to social distancing measures, which he acknowledged will be difficult at least early on, since some of the kids have not seen each other since March.

“It is imperative that our coaches understand,” he said of maintaining social distancing and documenting everything. “We have to be organized. We have to keep our kids accountable.”

Hewitt said face coverings must be worn when students arrive on campus and go thorough screening. He said schools are taking a number of measures to ensure proper hygiene, such as having hand sanitizer readily available as well as looking at what other counties are doing. They are exploring some innovative ways to do that, such as a device similar to a backpack with liquid sanitizer that can be sprayed on students’ hands.

“It makes it faster so you can get those kids into practice as soon as possible,” he said.

Hewitt told board members that because of state restrictions that limit indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people, locker rooms and weight rooms will remain closed. He said some school systems have moved equipment outdoors, but Moore County decided against that.

He added that students have already been working out on their own this summer, and that coaches will focus on cardio exercise “to get them where they need to be” when full practices begin.

He said because coaches cannot hand out water bottles under current safety protocols, students will be asked to bring a gallon jug of water with them each day for proper hydration. He added that schools will have bottles of water on hand for those who don’t bring them, as well as extra face masks so no students have to be turned away, which he said would be “devastating.”

Because spectators or visitors are not allowed, Hewitt said it is important for parents to be punctual in dropping off their children for their appointed workout times and picking them up afterward.

Hewitt said each school has done “an unbelievable job” in developing systems and processes to ensure the safety of students and staff.

“So we are ready” he told board members. “I can’t thank our re-entry teams enough.”

Board Chairwoman Libby Carter noted that some school systems, such as Wake County, have delayed the start of fall sports to October. She asked Hewitt about discussions that have taken place in the state about possibly switching some sports sessions around, such as moving football to spring and having sports with less contact in the fall.

Hewitt said ultimately that would be up to the NCHSAA to decide.

“They’re just kind of keeping that close to the vest right now, just to make sure that they make a good decision for our student-athletes,” he said.

He noted that the Football Coaches Association came up with a possible plan to back the season up to mid-January.

“But again, that is just speculation,” he said. “Until Commissioner Que Tucker comes out, we are just going to wait on her decision.”

Superintendent Bob Grimesey asked Hewitt when he thought conditioning workouts should begin, based on the Sept. 1 date set by the NCHSAA for competition to begin. He said in a normal year, full practices would begin at least a month earlier “to get the kids ready” for actual competition and games.

“Our coaches do an excellent job of preparing our student-athletes,” he said. “That gives us plenty of time to get the kids in a system and a process of how things will work. … I think that is doable.”

Hewitt also stressed that the workouts under phase one of the NCHSAA plan are very limited and will not resemble what would normally happen. For example, players cannot share balls or equipment in any sport. In volleyball, each player would have a ball and could hit it against a wall.

In football, Hewitt said players can use the sledge for blocking drills, but after one group uses it, coaches will have to clean and sanitize it for the next group.

“So as you can see, this is going to be a very strenuous process, in that coaches have to make sure they have a system in place and know how it will work,” he told the board. “But yet I think we all can say that we are ready even if it is limited.”

Carter also questioned whether it would be possible for some sports with less contact, such as golf, tennis and cross country, to resume. “Is it all or nothing?” she asked.

Hewitt said he and his two counterparts — Chad Hill at Union Pines and Chris Cole at North Moore —talked over a number of options and possibilities, and that there had been some discussion among the schools in the conference in which Pinecrest is a member about doing that. He said they would have to see what the NCHSAA will allow.

“I really like the idea,” Hewitt said. “It would be a hybrid situation to be able to get these student-athletes out there. But until the NCHSAA board deems one way or the other what is permissible, we still don’t know.”

Carter noted that Scotland County, which is also in the same conference with Pinecrest, is expected to keep the campus closed and start the year with remote leaning.

Hewitt said that could be a challenge given’s Tucker’s earlier position that if a school is not open for students, sports would not take place.”

Hewitt said until the NCHSAA sets a definite start date for the start of games and competitions, everything is speculation. He said they have been getting questions about this since March, when everything shut down.

“I can’t tell you how many calls we’ve had since March,” he told the board. “We’re all about to pull our hair out. We all want to get back, but we know we have to follow the NCHSAA guidelines. That is what we will do.

“Moore County Schools will follow the rules and do what what we are supposed to do.”

Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or dsinclair@thepilot.com.

(2) comments

Kent Misegades

How do you play football with a mask underneath your helmet in 95F weather?

Jim Tomashoff

I don't know Kent. But let's put you out there for two or three hours so equipped and see how you do.

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