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Indiana high schools take first step in return to sports

As Indiana high schools take their first steps today toward an anticipated return to sports for the 2020-21 school year, uncertainty continues to cloud those hopes.

"I'll answer it like Mike Wilbon did on Waddle and Silvy -- I don't know, I have no idea how it's going to go," Chesterton athletic trainer Bernie Stento said Sunday. "I will say I'm optimistic for now, but we haven't started yet. The more we talk, the more questions we have, and there aren't enough answers. It's rather mind numbing after a while. Stuff can change so quickly, it's a different feeling every day. The more you think about it, the more confusing it gets. It's something we have to take a day at a time, a week at a time, and hopefully try to get through each positively."

In his 20th year at Chesterton, Stento started the first day of voluntary workouts for fall sports bright and early at 5:30 a.m. He was stationed in the football stadium tunnel outside his training room, set to check in athletes before their practices every half hour. To aid the process, all students have a medical data base and were asked to fill out an online questionnaire, much like has become standard for medical appointments, on COVID-19, to hasten the process. If they weren't experiencing any characteristic symptoms, they were cleared to continue. Stento formulated a master schedule based on when teams want to meet and since they range from early morning to evening, he'll be helped out by his wife, Kim, and Marnee Smith, who are also certified athletic trainers.

"It's hard to do it all by yourself with our facilities all spread out," Stento said. "I view it as a puzzle. We have to make it fair for everybody so they get their time on the (field) turf. All the coaches have bought in. A lot of them are happy to be told how to do it. They see all the stuff and it's confusing to them, too. We've been working on it over a month and feel confident in what we're doing, how things are set up. It'll be tweaked as needed. We know our facilities and how they fit with the guidelines. It's just that you hear you can do one thing one day and two days later, you can't. It's a rollercoaster to figure out."

Temperature checks will not be required since they aren't necessarily an indicator. Coaches have been told to keep an eye out for athletes who may seem out of sorts physically and have them meet with Stento as a precaution. All groups will be limited in size and as teams finish practices, they will exit on the other side of the stadium so as to not overlap with the next team. Masks will be required for coaches and training staff in instances when distancing can't be maintained. They will also be available for athletes, who will be required to provide their own water supply. Locker rooms will be closed. The weight room will be open with a set-up to ensure safe distancing and equipment must be cleaned after usage. If athletes have to see Stento during the course of the day, they will have to wear a mask due to the proximity.

"This is a six-week process to get us ready to play. It's a gradual opening, just making sure they're safe," Stento said. "Based on the paperwork, I think most of them are just looking forward to getting out of the house and starting. We're very fortunate we're in a good area as far as the county. We're dealing with a pretty healthy population of kids. Our numbers are really low compared to other places in the state, but how are we going to be Aug. 1? I'm sure there are some (families) who are saying they're not going to send them this week, they'll see how it pans out and send them next week."

Fall teams will practice four days a week during the first two-week phase with two days of conditioning and two days of regular practice activity. All of them, including volleyball, condition outdoors so the only inside workouts for fall teams are on volleyball's activity days. Winter teams can practice twice a week during July. Phase two, if the progression continues, begins July 20, when teams would be allowed to resume regular practice activity.

"There's still an awful lot of uncertainty," Stento said. "We could go two weeks and have to modify things, make decisions on the fly. We're going to protect ourselves as well as the kids, but there's only a certain percentage of things we have control over. We can't control what kids are going to do the other hours of the day. Are they hanging out with friends, going to other people's houses, to the beach? We have to make decisions across the board for all sports on a daily basis. It's an interesting process to say the least."

Looking at the various sports, Stento concedes there are more questions for contact sports like football and soccer than there are golf and tennis, where there is natural distancing, and even volleyball.

"It's definitely going to affect some sports more than others," he said. "It's summer, you're outside, (the virus) isn't supposed to be as bad, but what about when you get back to school, into the regular flu season? I don't really know how to predict it. One day, it seems really good, and the next day, I'm thinking, how in the heck are we going to do this? Football pays the finances. Without the football programs, you won't be able to support the other programs, especially at smaller schools. How would they do it? They need that money?"

While college and professional sports have testing capabilities and the ability to isolate teams in 'bubbles,' high schools do not, creating a higher level of unknown.

"If they're truly symptomatic, they would have to isolate, but kids could get infected, be asymptomatic and not get tested, so they may never know," Stento said. "What do you do if so many get infected? Nobody knows. If the pros can't figure it out, how are we? It's not just their team. They're in school from 7:30 to 3. Maybe people are supposed to be staying home and they just show up. There could be an outbreak in the general (school) population, but what if there are none on their team? If they close school, do they close athletics? What if one team has to isolate kids? These are all things we have to think about, what's going to happen if we go through these scenarios."

In contrast to Porter County, neighboring Lake County ranks second in the state in COVID cases. With three Duneland Athletic Conference opponents and other schools from Lake County on their schedule, Chesterton teams could also be influenced by what's happening elsewhere.

"They could have an outbreak on Thursday and cancel the game on Friday," Stento said. "If a school is shut down, would (teams) be able to play? If you find out an athlete was tested, are you going to go back and tell the teams played? These are all things every other coach, (athletic director) and trainer are thinking about. I'd like to say I'm an optimistic realistic. I hope people have optimism, but I have to look at things in real time with real data, real medical information."

Already tasked with an integral role at the school and in the athletic department, Stento fully understands his job have never been more critical.

"It's not fair to compare us to doctors, nurses, folks who have been dealing with this for weeks, months, who are exposed all the time," he said. "I understand the environment in Porter County. My level of anxiety right now is not very high. I don't feel really concerned personally at this moment, but it could be a little different in a few weeks, when we start school, if a person gets it, if we have a breakout. You just have to stay vigilant, stay aware of things."

Stento is a diligent mask wearer and is hopeful that others are willing to abide by such regulations for the benefit of others, not just themselves.

"It's part of the new normal," he said. "I wear it every day, in school, at the store, church. I've become so familiar with it, I forget I have it on. A mask is not much to ask."


Chesterton athletic trainer Bernie

Stento regularly sports a mask as

a safety measure during the

COVID-19 pandemic.

(Photo provided)

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