On the surface, it looks almost like business as usual, with football players exercising under a warm summer sun and under the watchful eyes of a coach, preparing for the upcoming season.

Almost, but not quite. There are only a handful of players, they are spaced well apart from one another and their coach, and all are wearing face coverings. Additionally:

— Every seven minutes, players take water breaks, sipping from their own bottles.

—  If they need to use the restroom, they enter one at a time, and make sure everything is wiped down with disinfectant before they leave.

—  It’s at least 20 to 30 minutes between the time one workout group leaves and the next arrives.

—  And all are careful to handle their own equipment, and no one else’s.

Such is preseason life in the time of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at St. Genevieve High School in Panorama City, where limited, highly supervised conditioning workouts are also underway for boys and girls soccer and basketball teams. All of which follow the same protocols as the football squad: “pods” of no more than 10 student-athletes at a time, mandatory face coverings, and social distancing (6-feet minimum), and disinfectant galore.

“We’re moving forward as if it’s a regular year, but we also take it day by day,” said Marlon Archey, athletic director at St. Genevieve, one of more than 50 Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles hoping to return to athletic competition this fall after the shutdown of sports last March.

 “We have to continue to be safe, healthy and prepared, and if tomorrow we have to shut it down again, we’ll do Zoom workouts as we’ve done during the shutdown,” he added. 

Catholic high school officials are closely monitoring health directives issued by the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), governmental health authorities, and the archdiocese. And they know full well that the resumption of athletic competition, slated for December, is not guaranteed, not with recent surges statewide in positive tests for COVID-19.

“All our students and staff are chomping at the bit, waiting to resume school and athletics,” noted Tommy Loera Jr., athletic director at Bishop Mora Salesian High School in East LA. “Any return to sports has to be done in compliance with directives from health and school authorities, and as we’ve seen, a lot can change very quickly.”

That’s been the case affecting schools like St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, which received official permission to resume on-campus workouts on June 22 only to be shut down again three weeks later by Ventura County. 

Guidelines released Aug. 3 by the state requiring workouts to be held outdoors, in stable cohorts (or pods), and with social distancing mean the school’s athletes can now return to the field again, but “we are not going to start up right away until we get all of our protocols in a row again,” athletic director John Muller told Angelus. 

“We may in a couple of weeks. but since football and other fall sports don’t start until December, we have time.”

In the interim, coaches at St. Bonaventure High School have sent home workout schedules to athletes, and some coaches conduct regular Zoom meetings to check in with athletes, said Muller.

“For the most part,” he said, “parents want the student-athletes to get out and be active, and we will comply with that when we are able.”

Further north, on-campus football conditioning resumed Aug. 6 at Bishop Garcia Diego High School in Santa Barbara, with girls volleyball and cheer returning Aug. 10 and baseball later in the month, said athletic director Aaron Skinner.

“This decision is in line with our school’s plan to open in-person instruction when we are allowed by local and state health officials,” he said, citing the Aug. 3 guidelines issued by the California Department of Public Health. 

Anticipation and preparation

The absence of on-campus activity, sports, and otherwise, “has definitely been tough on some of our community,” Skinner added, a feeling shared throughout the Catholic high school community.

Whether they are currently holding on-campus workouts or not, all Catholic high schools are planning to resume sports as close to normal as possible under directives of the schedule released July 20 by the CIF. That includes varsity, junior varsity, and freshman teams.

“Once given the opportunity to get back out there, our teams are excited to be given any opportunity to train,” said David Fahey, athletic director at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora. “But this will likely start off slowly, starting with the safety of everyone in regards to the pandemic.”

One concern for officials like Fahey is preventing injury as student athletes come out of the more “sedentary lifestyle” typical of the coronavirus lockdown and return to competition. 

A “pod” of six St. Genevieve football players work out outdoors Aug. 3. (St. Genevieve High School)

Another consideration is that with some sports shifting seasons and more overlapping, schools will have to address facility usage, transportation, and scheduling. It may mean less nonleague competition and less traveling, officials said, although schedules are still being finalized. Some cited a potential shortage of game officials (referees, umpires, etc.) to work games that may impact how much can be scheduled.

And smaller-enrollment schools like St. Lucy’s, said Fahey, will be challenged to fill out their rosters. 

“We have three sports in the fall season and seven in the spring,” he said. “Roughly 25% of our student-athletes are multisport athletes that may have some tough decisions to make this year.”

Bishop Garcia Diego is surveying its families “to gauge how many of our student-athletes wish to participate in multiple sports during the same season, given the new calendar, so that we can plan accordingly,” said Skinner.

“As of now, I anticipate we will offer every sport that we have in the past and at every level. There obviously may need to be some adjustments, given the survey's results.” 

Positive approach

Regardless of what happens, school officials are impressed by the positive attitude they have witnessed from coaches, staff, and especially their student-athletes.

“For the most part, morale is high, and that comes from our leadership,” said Loera at Mora Salesian. “It was a tough spring to swallow for our students and coaches, especially the seniors. But we have tried to keep a positive attitude throughout, and we keep pushing forward.”

 At St. Genevieve, “our student-athletes have lifted up the adults,” Archey said, with obvious pride. “Our seniors were naturally disappointed at not getting to finish their season last spring, but they also were saying, ‘Coach, it’s OK, I’m healthy and my family is healthy, that’s what matters.’ And that’s pretty amazing.”

Sports, he added, has always been an excellent teacher in handling and overcoming diversity.

“And this coronavirus situation,” he said with a smile, “is certainly a good test. But our people are handling it well.”