As the spring semester begins, William Jewell College’s athletic teams are increasing COVID-19 testing as they begin in-season practices and events. Tom Eisenhauer, director of athletics, explained the protocols and processes for this semester.
Eisenhauer shared that Jewell’s athletic policies for COVID-19 are based on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Sports Science Institute’s requirements for schools taking part in athletics this year. In August, the Board of Governors and the NCAA provided member institutions with specific directions.
Despite some student impressions that the increased testing for the spring semester is a reaction to Jewell’s experiences with COVID-19 in the fall, the policies for the spring have been planned since August – though some plans have changed as a result of NCAA recommendations.
“If [member institutions] were going to conduct athletics, they had to meet very specific requirements and that included different levels of testing based on risk categories [that] the Sports Science Institute identified and then also different measures or different protections for student-athletes which included an opportunity to opt-out. So any student-athlete could opt-out from participation for COVID-related reasons and not have to worry about their scholarship being revoked or anything like that,” Eisenhauer said.
Most athletic teams were not in season for the majority of the fall semester, so most teams were following out-of-season protocols. These protocols include testing 25 percent of athletes every two weeks. Jewell fulfilled this requirement by testing a portion of each team every week so that 25 percent of the team would be tested over two weeks of testing.
Some exceptions to this process in the fall included the testing of the entire cross country team roster before attending conference championships. Cross country was the only sport to have a conference championship in the fall.
Basketball started their season around Thanksgiving, and 100 percent of the basketball roster has been tested every week since that time.
This semester, all sports teams will be in season, so all teams will be undergoing the increased in-season COVID-19 testing protocols. The NCAA Sports Science Institute has designated each sport with a risk level. A sport’s designation dictates how often in-season COVID-19 testing is required.
High-risk sports – football and basketball – will test 100 percent of the roster every single week. Soccer and volleyball were originally categorized as high risk. The Sports Science Institute conducted additional digital research during the fall and downgraded the risk of both sports to an intermediate level. Volleyball’s intermediate categorization is contingent on players wearing masks during the entirety of practices and competitions.
Indoor track, baseball, softball, and men’s and women’s soccer are testing 100 percent of the roster every two weeks throughout the spring semester. Low-risk sports, including swimming, golf, tennis and outdoor track, will be tested symptomatically – as the general student population is.
Eisenhauer also discussed the prevalence of COVID-19 among athletes and the efficacy of athletic department COVID-19 restrictions and testing protocols.
Eisenhauer explained that all testing for athletics is conducted through the same lab that the College used to conduct campus-wide testing. He explained that he has no reason to be concerned about the precision or accuracy of the saliva-based PCR test.
During the first semester, 70 student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.
“When you look at the source of transmission or they got it, none of it came from Athletics and so participation in athletics is mitigated very well. Part of it is that we’ve got a lot of people watching a lot of coaches and we’re very strict and enforcing mask policies…,” Eisenhauer said.
“What the challenge is – and it’s no different from the rest of campus – is it’s the behaviors outside of athletics, outside of the classroom, outside of the dining hall, where we see the risk of transmission of this virus going up…,” Eisenhauer continued. “Social settings where people [are] choosing not to wear masks, they’re choosing to not maintain the appropriate physical distancing. They’re disregarding the basic mitigating measures that we’ve seen to be oh-so effective.”
Eisenhauer said that athletics is surveillance testing at a higher rate than the general campus.
“Unless a student who’s not involved in athletics becomes symptomatic, we don’t know that they’re not carrying the virus. But in athletics, we’re more likely to find out because of the weekly testing. We tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to our risk level [regarding] quarantine. There are instances where [we’d] rather be safe than sorry,” said Eisenhauer.
While the Student Health Center ultimately decides whether to quarantine a student, the athletic department will make recommendations based on the activities taking place for that sport.
Eisenhauer discussed the athletic department’s plans should there be increases or spikes in COVID-19 cases among student-athletes and coaches.
“Any changes to athletics programming as a result of active COVID-19 cases on campus will be made consistent with the threat matrix established as part of Operation Safe Campus. At most levels, some type of practice can occur even if it’s modified to only permit masked and distanced activities. Team by team decisions will be made depending on where active cases are identified and the extent they can be contained,” said Eisenhauer.
Despite being generally optimistic about how the athletic department has navigated COVID-19, Eisenhauer mentioned that February may be a particularly difficult month because every sport is in season and the cold temperatures are keeping people inside.
Eisenhauer concluded by emphasizing the athletic department’s gratitude for all of the work that has gone into allowing student-athletes to participate in their sports during this time.
“I’m really really thankful for the support of so many people on campus who have worked hard – within the department and outside of the department – to give our student-athletes that opportunity to compete. There are schools across the country that just shut down athletics completely, and I know how disheartening it was for student-athletes and for coaches to completely lose their spring season last year. Then in the fall [there was uncertainty about] whether or not they were going to be able to play and whether they were going to even be able to do their sport,” said Eisenhauer.
“We are where we are today because a lot of people on this campus have supported our student-athletes and really leaned in and helped a lot. I’m grateful, and I know I speak on behalf of all student-athletes and coaches, that we’re thankful that we can do our sports. We recognize the risks involved and take seriously what we need to do to make sure the entire campus community remains safe while having the opportunity to compete. I mean, it’s the least we can do is try to keep everyone safe if we’re allowed to compete,” Eisenhauer said.