It’s Thursday afternoon at Boca Ciega High School, where the Pirates are having their last practice before their game against Hollins High School. They’re already guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, but a win on the 30th would puts them in line to be district champions. It’s the last week of October and still 86 degrees out, making the track around the field smell like burnt rubber. One of the coaches keeps energy high with a speaker blasting Migos, Future and a lot of Drake.
Things are surprisingly normal for a team experiencing its first season since the COVID-19 outbreak – a fact that can make it harder for sports programs to keep their students safe.
“At the beginning of the year, it was like a three-headed monster,” says Max Smith, Boca Ciega’s head football coach. “You had COVID, you had heat and you had lightning. Two of them don’t want you outside… and the third head, COVID, doesn’t want you inside.”
Starting in June, the Pinellas County School Board laid down a list of rules and guidelines for each sport, adjusting these as the year goes on. Regulations are tightest for indoor sports, and sports with full contact. Indoor sports like volleyball have strict limits on spectators – the county requires masks for all players during practice and before and after games. All equipment, including the ball, is wiped down and disinfected after each game and practice.
The county rolled out new football regulations in three summer “phases,” starting in June, with the current rules laid out for the fall semester. At the start of the summer, athletes couldn’t use indoor facilities like locker rooms and weight rooms at all; coaches gave temperature scans and a COVID questionnaire to all the players at the start of each practice; and the county set tight limits as to how many players could practice, and for how long.
“One thing that I did was, once I got the OK from the county, and our trainer, I’d show up three hours before workouts and pretty much carry the whole weight room outside every day,” said Coach Smith.
On August 3, the county allowed workouts in indoor weight rooms again, but with limits, so Bogie staff set up a factory-efficient method: one student would do reps, a coach sprayed down the equipment and then waved in the next student, as quickly as possible.
It’s worth noting that, according to PCS, only six BCHS students have tested positive for COVID-19 since school resumed. It’s unclear if any of those are sports-related.
The county’s fall-semester rules are far more relaxed by comparison to summer, and the players seem less motivated to keep up with them. Athletes are required to bring their own water bottles, to be refilled via hoses connected to a shared water tank. But when coaches aren’t looking, players will sometimes spray the water directly into their face or mouth to stay fresh in the roasting heat. With only a handful of coaches on staff, and already limited time to practice, Smith says it’s hard to enforce the dozens of rules related to water, distance and masks.
“I think some of the kids’ mentality is ‘Coach, I was just outside for two hours tackling, blocking, laying [on] and grabbing my teammates, but now when I come inside I have to wear a mask?’” said Coach Smith.
Talking to the players, their biggest COVID concern seems to be the new PCS cap on attendance, which only allows 25% stadium capacity, for both the home and visitor team.
“It’d usually be packed and loud; we liked that,” said one team captain.
“It helps the team when it’s at full capacity,” said another.
Despite all the changes, Bogie’s performance seems to have held up well. When October 30 rolled around, the Pirates crushed Hollins High 36-0, securing the district championship.