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The Year of Game Changers

How Each Season Accommodated to COVID-19 Restrictions

Last spring, when schools first transitioned to remote learning, Athletic Director Rodney Zimmerman (Coach Z) continued to teach P.E. classes. While in their own separate homes, together via Zoom, students completed stretches, obstacle courses, and more. Spring sports such as baseball and tennis also continued remotely by practicing individual drills. While unconventional, Coach Z saw that these remote athletic times provided students with the physical activity and connection they needed in such a strange situation. 

As a result, when going into this school year, Coach Z knew that somehow, in some fashion, sports needed to be available for students. Looking back at this school year, he expressed his gratitude that sports had been possible, because he thinks that without athletics, students “would have really struggled.”

Yet, managing sports this year also proved to be a struggle in and of itself. Over the course of the year, the pandemic and our understanding of COVID-19 continually developed. To accommodate the evolving circumstances, during each season the athletics department needed to create new plans and protocols. And beyond the ever-changing health concerns, the nature of each sport also had its own distinct factors, such as the degree of close contact required, to take into account. 

Organizing fall sports required working with the most unknowns. Certain aspects of the virus were still coming to light, and the medical committee recommended that athletics err strongly on the side of caution. The school decided to hold all sports outside, required everyone involved to wear masks, and did not allow any fans to attend games. 

“Beyond the ever-changing health concerns, the nature of each sport also had its own distinct factors, such as the degree of close contact required, to take into account.”

For flag football, an outdoor sport, only the latter two protocols altered the season. However, volleyball — an indoor sport — faced larger changes. The girls team initially practiced on the field outside; this complicated footwear and sliding on the ground. Furthermore, other schools’ volleyball teams would not comply with AJA’s own protocols, so the team could not compete against other schools. Later in the season, Coach Z felt that their small corner to practice in was not equitable when compared to the flag football team’s entire field. As a result, the team ended up moving to the indoor middle school gym.

By the winter sports season, the medical committee agreed it would be safe to play sports indoors with masks. The basketball teams carried out relatively normal seasons, although the few number of schools willing to compete with masks reduced the amount of teams they could play against. Furthermore, in the beginning of the season no fans were allowed; by the end of the season, the school permitted a limited number of family members to attend. The medical committee decided that a wrestling team would not be safe this year; the sport requires too much close contact.

As spring sports began, much of the AJA community, as well as some of the broader Atlanta area, had been vaccinated. Furthermore, all spring sports — baseball, soccer, and tennis — were outdoor sports. To remain extra safe, AJA made the decision to still require all AJA teams to wear masks. However, more fans were allowed to come watch games. Many fans from other schools argued that while vaccinated, outside, and social distancing, evidence shows that they do not need to wear masks. AJA continued to strongly request that fans wear masks regardless, but they did not make this a requirement.

Though COVID-19 restrictions complicated each sports season in mostly undesirable ways, Coach Z saw that it did bring a positive adjustment: athletics needed to keep the gym and all equipment exceptionally clean. Coach Z remarked, “The cleanliness — that can definitely be something we could carry into a non COVID situation.” He worries that as soon as life returns to normal, “we revert back to just being a hot mess — where things are all over the place, dirt swept everywhere.”

Furthermore, Coach Z feels that the students complied with the safety protocols incredibly well. “We went through every season without one case. That’s huge, because every other school that I know of had a situation,” explained Coach Z. He understands that the new, unusual rules made playing sports difficult, and he “applaud[s] the students for just doing the best they could to be in this situation.” Not only did sports run all year — albeit somewhat abnormally — AJA athletes ended the year without a single COVID-19 case. 

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