ARE WESTFIELD’S ATHLETIC PROGRAMS PUTTING STUDENTS IN HARM’S WAY?

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Photo courtesy of DaSean William Gallishaw

Westfield High School ‘s football field shown in an aerial view.

        Many associate Westfield High School with sports. This is not surprising considering the myriad of outstanding accomplishments achieved by Westfield athletes. Our school’s athletic success is not solely the result of pure luck. It is earned through long practices and back-to-back workouts, supplemented by teamwork and skilled coaching. 

        This was the reason why the Westfield athletic department was absolutely crushed following the emergence of the pandemic. Not only were all sports and future plans cancelled at the end of the 2019-20 school year, but the seasons for the next year were halted. 

        Additionally, new CDC guidelines advised the nation to avoid in-person gatherings and to always be equipped with a mask. In other words, these guidelines advised against sports practices. 

        Regardless, on September 8th, Westfield decided to attempt conducting workouts that would follow all recent CDC Guidelines. Eleven programs were cleared to conduct optional outdoor conditioning with the coaches being trained and athletes being required to pass a health screening. 

        According to Russell Ramey, Swim Coach, “All coaches were required to take a Phase 2 and Phase 3 training course. All safety protocols are set by the State of Virginia, Department of Health and FCPS. All students are required to complete a Health Survey prior to arrival, once at the school they must remain in their vehicles and pass a temperature check administered by the athletic trainers. If cleared for conditioning all athletes must wear masks to and from conditioning. They may remove masks once the conditioning begins, but some exercise with the mask on. Our workouts are limited to 50 people per training session to include coaches per guidelines.”

        These requirements may seem easily breachable, considering athletes were given permission to take off their masks during the workout and it seems near impossible to avoid human-contact in the case of heavy contact sports such as football, basketball, or field hockey. 

        However, the determination of Westfield’s coaches to maintain a safe and socially-distanced environment clearly overshadow these doubts. Additionally, it is important to note that these guidelines have since been changed. Since December, athletes have been required to keep masks on, even during the practice. 

        Kyle Simmons, Football Coach, explained that the football coaches have prioritized having athletes “staying 10 feet apart when possible” and put on masks if closer. All are required to bring their own water and an Emergency Care Card as well. 

        The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has actually claimed social distancing to be the best armour against the virus. Although this armour would be made much stronger through the addition of masks, simply social distancing reduces the potential of catching the virus by 70%. Thus, it would be plausible to claim that if effective social distancing and proper health screening are well implemented, Westfield’s sports workouts should not put anyone in harm’s way. However, one question remains: Are these precautions actually being implemented effectively? 

        Statements made by Noel Klippenstein, Basketball Coach, seemed to align with Simmons’ claims about maintaining good social distance. Klippenstein even asserted, “The students have been great about social distancing. When anyone gets close, we remind them and they adjust quickly. Everyone is considerate of each other and do their best to maintain appropriate spacing.”

        Danielle Barthold, Field Hockey Coach, had actually been enforcing tough social distancing rules ever since June, when field hockey workouts began: “We set the standard at the beginning in June when we started workouts. Occasionally the players will need a quick verbal reminder to stay separated.” None of the athletes that had participated in these early sessions have since caught COVID-19. 

        So far, it is obvious that coaches are certain about a minimal-risk nature of these outdoor practices. But a bigger factor cannot be ignored: How do the athletes and their families feel about the practices?

        Understandably, all the workouts were completely voluntary. One might assume this would translate to little turnout, but evidently, the spots filled up in no time. This was partially due to the intense social isolation faced by athletes prior to the workouts. Many claimed that although they were concerned at first, the desire to be able to simply see other people was enough to persuade them to go. 

        A regular at the cheer practices, Macy Gibbs, 11, stated, “My parents were concerned at first with how everything would work and what safety measures they would have set in place to keep everyone safe. What made me decide to go was the fact that it was outside and not in a closed off space and I really missed going to practices a lot and wanted to see my team again.”

        Similarly, Caleb Roundtree, 12, expounded, “I felt like I needed to go because the quarantine stopped me from going out and I needed to get out and do something. Most of us had been cooped up inside and haven’t been able to get out. And to many athletes high school sports are very important especially if they want to play at a higher level.”

        Jason Cheifetz, 11, who has been attending baseball workouts elaborated, “We were concerned about covid and other student-athletes being around potentially not following given instructions. The choice my family made to allow me to attend the workouts is because of our previous knowledge of how serious our coach [Robert Hahne, Baseball Coach] takes baseball and covid. We trusted that he would do a great job keeping all of the players safe and he has done just that.”

        In fact, it is worth mentioning that out of the 20 Westfield athletes who were interviewed regarding this situation, not one expressed the coaches and staff treating the COVID-19 situation as anything less than serious. 

        One athlete, Lara Zanotti, 12, brought up a very valid point: “[The set of regulations put in place] seems effective to limit exposure to COVID and are reasonable things to ask of a group of high schoolers since there are some people who are out and about all the time and some people who only leave the house to exercise.”

        Overall, it is very clear that both the athlete population and coaches at Westfield have done their best at keeping sports workouts as effective and minimal risk as possible. Many would argue that the little risk that remains is in fact worth it, considering the golden reputation of Westfield Athletics as being one of the best athletic programs in the county.

        Perhaps football player Joe George, 11, said it best: “Our extremely successful program is a product of all the preparation we do, year after year. Therefore, we must continue to prepare, even in these hard times, to be all in and continue our success.”