As a coach, Kerry Lane has always felt better when he’s around his athletes.
For Lane, who is set to begin his fifth season as Pine Tree ISD’s head football coach and assistant athletic director, that feeling has been magnified since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can’t control what kids do away from here, but on our watch, they are doing all of the things necessary to stay safe,” Lane said Thursday. “Any coach will tell you that you never want to see a kid hurt, but especially not on your watch. That’s the way we’re treating this. We’re trying to create a safe environment for the kids.”
The risk involved in allowing large groups of students to return to workouts two weeks ago is real, and several East Texas schools have been forced to shut down all or parts of workouts because of positive coronavirus tests.
On Tuesday, Spring Hill ISD stopped summer workouts for female athletes for two weeks after a student-athlete tested positive for COVID-19. The coaching staff was notified the athlete had exposure at a non-school activity, according to a statement from the district.
Also on Tuesday, Marshall, Carlisle and Van ISDs shut down workouts because of confirmed virus cases. Marshall ISD, which said the person who had contracted COVID-19 was an employee of the athletic department, and Carlisle ISD, which said a family member of a male athlete had tested positive, both later announced they plan to resume workouts Monday.
The moves by the school districts come amid a steady rise in new COVID-19 cases statewide and in Gregg County. Hospitalizations in the state and in the county also are climbing.
Longview head football coach and Athletic Director John King said student safety is the No. 1 priority during workouts, but unfortunately, coaches can only make suggestions and hope for the best once athletes are off campus.
“Our kids and parents have done a great job,” King said Thursday. “We’ve got about 30 employees here from 7 a.m. until noon trying to make sure that we’re taking care of our athletes. Our parents and kids are doing a great job of getting dropped off in the right area, things like that. What’s frustrating is what you see happening when they leave here. Those guidelines are not being followed when they’re elsewhere.
“There are people holding indoor basketball tournaments, baseball tournaments, football training, and they’re not following the same guidelines that we are. What happens is that one of those kids goes and plays in those settings, gets sick, and then comes back and it affects what we have going on. We’re the ones that pay the price.”
First-year Spring Hill ISD head coach and Athletic Director Weston Griffis said he hasn’t heard complaints from worried parents and attributes that to the trust they put in coaches.
“We’ve got 10 grown men out here making sure we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do and in a safe manner,” Griffis said Thursday. “We have a staff meeting every morning about how to do it right. We talk safety for 40 minutes, talking about how we want things done, and then we tell the same things to the kids. We know when we have them here, we can hold them accountable.”
King acknowledged that even with the most comprehensive safety guidelines in place, positive cases are going to happen, such as those at neighboring East Texas schools, but he still believes what coaches and athletes are doing could serve as an example.
“This was expected, and that’s why all of the guidelines and protocols — that are working — were set in place,” King said. “We’d be foolish to think someone wasn’t going to test positive or be exposed to someone that tested positive. We’ve got to do our part to keep it whipped down the best we can and not be the reason for the spread.”
Lane said a few parents have voiced concerns about the possible dangers of group workouts, and he and King said releasing protocols and guidelines before teams ever stepped foot back on campus helped ease those concerns.
And again, the trust factor is big.
“I am concerned about COVID-19. This is something none of us have ever had to deal with, and everyone should be concerned,” said Darrell Freeman, whose son, D.J., will be a three-year starter at quarterback for Pine Tree this fall.
“But I trust coach Lane and his coaching staff to take care of my kid. I’ve trusted them all these years with my son Quentin (2018 graduate) and now with D.J., so why wouldn’t I trust them now?” he said. “I’ve even told coach Lane that D.J.’s name is D.J. Freeman-Lane. I expect him to treat him like his own kid, and I know he does that.”