It has been nearly a full calendar year since any Slippery Rock University student-athlete has been able to step on the field or court and play in meaningful competition. But, with the announcement made this past week that student-athletes will be tested weekly, SRU and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) are now on track to return to competition this spring. But things would not be at this point yet without the work that has been put in by the school’s athletic training staff who have quite literally changed their job descriptions in the past 11 months.
“I’ve never dealt with a global pandemic and as athletic trainers, we’re pretty good with orthopedic study and general medicine,” said Stacy Arend, an athletic trainer at The Rock. “But, nothing prepared us for a pandemic, especially a new disease, so this has been a complete new experience for all of us.”
Arend is one of six full-time athletic trainers at Slippery Rock and has now been at the university for seven-and-a-half years. She has been working as an athletic trainer for close to two decades, and, from stops at Mercer University, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and now, here at Slippery Rock, Arend has almost seen it all.
Since last March, however, she and the rest of the athletic trainers have had their jobs turned upside down. And they’ve rolled with it. Finally, they’re on the verge of helping student-athletes return to competitive play for the first time since last March.
According to Arend, the athletic trainers have followed guidelines that have been set by the NCAA as they usually would. In a normal year, those guidelines would go over how to deal with concussions and other injuries, but for COVID-19, these guidelines are just as crucial to keeping everyone safe. Those guidelines have also categorized sports into low, intermediate, or high risk for spreading the virus, and they tell how often they have to test each sport.
“What we’re doing at Slippery Rock is doing actually more than what the NCAA is requiring us and, as long as you meet the NCAA standards, you’re allowed to test more,” Arend said. “We’re testing everyone at least once a week with a PCR test, and PCR is the gold standard, so once you get that result you go with it.”
Among the sports that would be considered high risk are basketball and football, while soccer would be considered intermediate. Sports that are high risk will be receiving PCR COVID-19 tests three times a week. To ensure that everyone will be safe, each sport will be administered a PCR test 72 hours before a game to make sure results are back in time. Along with testing, there are other protocols such as screening each day, wearing a mask at all times, and making sure to social distance when possible.
“I feel pretty good about the spring,” Arend said. “We’ve now started our second week of testing, and it’s going well. This is a buy-in for everyone because everyone is getting tested, from coaches to athletic trainers, and it’s really important for everyone to follow the protocols.”
Obviously, testing doesn’t entirely rule out contracting COVID-19. The question isn’t if, but when, there is a positive test. Then what happens?
The athletic trainers are working closely with the Student Health Center and, in the case of a positive test, that athlete will be notified immediately and have to go into isolation and contact the Student Health Center. A list of close contacts will then be made and given to the health center. Those contacts will be notified and also go into isolation. When the athletes are released from isolation, they do a follow-up physical with the team physician, who checks the heart and lungs. There is then a five-day progression that the student-athlete has to do, with requirements of meeting certain goals each day to get back to competition.
Arend succinctly summed up the biggest motivation for following protocol.
“I think everyone remembers what it was like last March, and we don’t want to go through that again,” she said.
Slippery Rock’s athletic directors have had to adjust how they do their jobs and, as more information comes, they continue to adjust to make sure that sports can run smoothly. When treating athletes, the trainers are taking every precaution in making sure that COVID-19 isn’t spread. They wear multiple face covers, gloves and sanitize as soon as they are done treating an athlete. They’ve also needed to change where they do their jobs. There used to be an athletic training room in Morrow Field house that was dedicated to multiple different sports, but in order to limit interactions between teams, they’ve converted different rooms to accommodate athletic training.
When all said and done, Slippery Rock will have administered around 600 tests per week. Every school in the PSAC will be testing athletes, as well.
“If we didn’t have testing, I think people would be nervous to have other teams coming to their campus because of the risk of outbreak and, now you don’t have to worry about athletes going to different campuses spreading COVID-19,” Dr. Martin Donahue, another athletic trainer at SRU, said.
Slippery Rock athletic teams will be traveling again. With testing, the chance of transmission will be far less likely. The athletic trainers who will be conducting all of the tests will finally get to see all their year’s work pay off.
“We had our first softball practice the other day and it was just nice to actually see practice,” Donahue said. “I get to do more of what I usually do with treatments. I did treatments in the fall, but it wasn’t the same knowing that there weren’t games coming up. But, to have people preparing for practices and games coming up, it just feels more normal.”
Sports slated to start again this spring include all normal spring sports, such as softball, baseball, and track and field. These teams were the first to be affected last year and now, almost a year after the announcement that sports would be canceled, they will finally return. That is due to the work that Arend, Donahue, Scott Morrison, Jackie Crytzer, Jael Funte, Molly Parsons, Maria Taylor, and many others have done in these past 11 months.
“We’re one step closer to normal, and I think we all had a rough fall because we all lost our identities, because we didn’t have any of that team bonding or competitiveness,” Arend said. “We’re almost there and once we start playing the games is when we can all have that sigh of relief. We’ll know that what we’re doing is working.”