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Inside the ‘pandemic playbook’: How Mass. athletic directors are preparing for the fall sports season

Braintree High athletic director Mike Denise created a "pandemic playbook" for all of his coaches.
Braintree High athletic director Mike Denise created a "pandemic playbook" for all of his coaches.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The week before the start of high school sports practices on Sept. 18 — the delayed start to the new Fall I season — Lowell athletic director Dave Lezenski drove to Cawley Stadium to drop off personal protective equipment for trainers, coaches, and student-athletes, filled with optimism that interscholastic athletics would soon resume for the first time in over six months.

But Lezenski woke up sick to his stomach the next day as he considered all the adjustments and modifications that would be required to safely execute a fall season in a district with more than 15,000 students.

“I’m not the only one that has had many, many sleepless nights,” said Lezenski, a three-decade Lowell resident.

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“There are ADs across the state and country that have had sleepless nights too, I’m sure. It’s the fear of not knowing. Safety is paramount in everyone’s lives, especially right now, and we’ve never done this before. It’s kind of like building and flying an airplane at the same time.”

The unknown nature of this athletic calendar — which features four seasons with football and other fall sports postponed to a “Fall II” period running from Feb. 22 to April 25 — is part of the reason Braintree AD Mike Denise began creating a Pandemic Playbook as early as July.

The 30-page document (co-authored by his wife Michele, the AD at Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton) covers scheduling, state guidelines required for each sport, and what to bring for practices. It puts contingencies in place in the event a player, coach, or trainer becomes symptomatic or tests positive for COVID-19.

Take a look at the Braintree “Pandemic Playbook"

“You have to re-imagine how you do everything,” said Denise, in his 14th year at Braintree.

“We don’t want to see these things as obstacles, we just look at them as challenges, and move on. Everyone has the attitude that we’re going to make the best of this and provide what our student-athletes need, which is the ability to compete, have social interaction, and be safe while doing it.”

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Denise is also providing each coaching staff with a blue bucket, or pandemic bucket, filled with face shields, gloves, hand sanitizing wipes, plastic bags, and a spray bottle with dish detergent to sanitize cones and balls.

“We want to have fun with it, but know it’s a serious tool that we’re using in the sense it has a variety of supplies that coaches may need when off site,” said Denise.

At Braintree, coaches get their own "Pandemic Bucket" filled with essentials like wipes, masks, and sanitizer.
At Braintree, coaches get their own "Pandemic Bucket" filled with essentials like wipes, masks, and sanitizer.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

After dealing with the challenges of holding practices, games begin this week. With Braintree going fully remote to start the school year, there was no access to the building, and the athletic trainer is set up at the concession stand by the school’s stadium.

As they are at most schools, students are required to fill out a COVID screening form each day, wear masks, and socially distance.

Most programs will play a conference-only schedule and divide further into pods to facilitate contact tracing. At least three leagues, the Cape Ann, the Hockomock, and the Patriot, are planning a postseason crossover tournament among divisions, but most conferences have no plans for the postseason.

The Mayflower, South Coast, and Greater Boston League have moved all fall sports to the Fall II period; the Boston City League awaits Wednesday night’s vote by the school committee if soccer and girls’ volleyball will be shifted to Fall II. The Northeastern Conference initially voted to postpone all fall sports, but Peabody, Swampscott, Marblehead, Salem, Danvers, Beverly, Gloucester, and new member Masconomet Regional have reversed course with approval from their respective school committees.

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When Braintree eventually travels to compete against other schools in its Bay State Conference “pod,” buses will be limited to 26 individuals, with coaches at the back of the bus to ensure students are wearing masks and staying in their assigned seats, making contact tracing easier should a student become ill.

At St. Mary’s of Lynn, transportation challenges already are at the forefront since Lynn is designated a higher risk city by the Department of Health and the school therefore has to seek alternative practice sites. Constantly adjusting his practice schedules, AD Jeff Newhall is grateful for neighboring schools such as Essex Tech, Austin Prep, and Bishop Fenwick for hosting practices.

Two fellow Catholic Central members, Austin Prep and Cardinal Spellman, paused the start of their respective seasons because of COVID concerns.

Despite it all, Newhall said students and their families aren’t complaining, despite many providing independent transportation to afternoon practices.

“In years past, the only time you had major disruptions is a weather event,” said Newhall. “So for me, it’s almost like every morning is a rainout.”

“But I haven’t heard one person complain. The kids, and fans, and coaches are just happy to have an opportunity to prepare for games.”

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Drawing students from other towns also represents a challenge for vocational schools, such as Shawsheen Tech in Billerica.

Sixteen-year AD Albert Costabile said he expects parents to drive kids to games in most situations, an idea that’s received positive feedback from parents who want to watch their kids play. Like many leagues, the Commonwealth Athletic Conference is running games on Saturdays and holidays to make transportation more convenient.

“Things that you kind of take for granted as an AD, like transportation, now that becomes a major issue,” said Costabile. “You talk about [pandemic protocols], read everything that comes down the pipe, but until it actually happens, you really don’t everything that’s going to be involved.”

These veteran administrators understand that even the best laid plans can go awry in a public health crisis.

“You’ve got to have an A plan, a B plan, a C plan, a D plan, an E plan, and an F plan, depending on what happens,” said Lezenski.

“I’d like to think we’re talented enough to put out fires, but this is like an inferno, and we’re trying to put it out with a water hose.”

Despite all the modifications and restrictions, Lezenski said Lowell’s participation in fall sports is only down 3-4 percent and the football team had 84 players report for non-contact conditioning drills. There are more challenges ahead, such as paying officials with basically zero game-day revenue, affording extra buses, resupplying PPE at sites, and asking coaches to put in extra work with daily health screenings.

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Yet the common theme from a high school athletics community that was rocked by the cancellation of the state finals last winter and the entire spring season is gratitude.

“It takes a lot of hands to make this work,” said Lezenski. “The bottom line is you do the best you can do, then you wake up tomorrow and try to do a little better.

“The overall goal was to let kids enjoy their sport and you can see the smile on their faces, even if they have a mask on.”

Medway athletic director Jeff Parcells put together a video for parents and coaches about preparing for the fall season. Watch here: