Snow-covered fields and student athletes gathered around computers for the first day of “practice” didn’t feel much like a typical beginning for fall sports teams.
But for Howard County athletics, Saturday was a banner day nonetheless.
With virtual “tryouts” kicking off for all sports and football players venturing to school campuses to begin equipment pickup in sub-freezing temperatures, athletics were officially back for Howard County public schools for the first time since March 12, 2020.
“The weather may not be cooperating, but this is still a huge day … one it feels like we’ve been planning and preparing for 11 months,” Centennial Athletics and Activities Manager Jeannie Prevosto said. “All the return to play plans we developed, the coaching points of emphasis and weeks of online registration have all been leading up to this. And even if it was just kids socially distanced passing one another on the way in and out of the school to get their equipment, the excitement of today was evident.
“One parent even said to me that when her son got to actually hold his helmet again, it was like Christmas.”
Originally, the plan was for in-person practices to begin around the county on Saturday. However, the decision to conduct the first two days of tryouts on Feb. 13 and 15 in a virtual setting was made earlier this week with snow and cold weather scheduled to move through the area. Barring further delays for weather, in-person activities will commence on Tuesday.
Howard County Coordinator of Athletics John Davis said that not being in person initially, however, will not affect the first scheduled play date of March 5.
“The big thing is that this starts the clock on those 20 calendar days,” said Davis, making reference to the state-mandated rule that athletes must practice for 20 days before they can take part in competitions. “It may not look as normal as usual for a fall season in terms of the weather and practice schedule, but we are going to get in those days of practice needed in one way or another before starting games in early March.”
Even with the limited in-person traffic, the new normal in terms of protocols were on full display. Every individual coming on campus was required to scan a QR code and fill out a questionnaire upon arrival, and that will be the case moving forward for at least the next few months.
Alli Hammond, the regional sports medicine coordinator for Howard County and the athletic trainer at Wilde Lake High, said she developed a blueprint for the QR system and then finalized everything with the rest of the trainers in the county.
“The idea is that no one has to touch paper or even be around anyone during these check-ins, but it still provides us with the data we will need in terms of contract tracing,” Hammond said. “As coaches and athletes fill out their answers, our form will update immediately and notify us of any answers that we need to follow up on regardless of if we are there physically checking them in. The hope is that it encourages anyone who may be at risk to stay at home until they are cleared.”
Hammond added that there is flexibility to adjust the questions as needed moving forward and that there are still a lot of unknowns that this system cannot account for. She said she has conferred with many individuals, including Head Team Physician Dr. Yvette Rooks at the University of Maryland, to make sure all the best practices are in place where applicable.
“I think having a system like this is an important piece to returning, but it’s not perfect,” she said. “We know that we are going to learn more as we go. ... That’s why we are still continuing to take all these other safety precautions like masks and social distancing when possible to try and prevent the spread.”
Another big difference already on display is that with all locker rooms closed, student athletes will be required to take all equipment home with them. That means things like the football helmets and shoulder pads passed out Saturday, typically stored at the school during a fall season, will be the responsibility of each athlete to bring back-and-forth each day once in-person practices begin next week.
As for the practices themselves in a virtual setting these first few days until the weather clears, every coach has a different approach. Some jumped right into drills that athletes could do in their homes, while others spent the time doing check-ins and going over protocols moving forward.
Either way, individuals gathering to prepare for an actual season was a welcome scene.
Davis said after so many hurdles along the way, it’s almost hard to believe this moment has finally arrived.
“I’ll tell you, it’s been such a crazy road, the feeling right now is almost like cautious optimism. I’m very excited to finally be getting started, but at the same there’s some trepidation there as well,” he said. “The biggest thing is that we have a great plan and there’s been a lot of great people that have contributed to it. So we feel confident about our ability to protect the staff and students, keep everybody safe, as we get going with this mini fall season.
“But yet at the same time there’s still so many things that are unknown still, so we know that things are going to continually change and we are going to have to adapt as we go.”