Upper Thumb schools quickly adapt to COVID testing rules for athletes | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools

Photo of Mark Birdsall

Harbor Beach athletic director Troy Schelke, left, and athletics secretary Pat Terrill demonstrate the COVID-19 testing process the school, along with all other Michigan high schools, have instituted since rules requiring testing of a prep athletes took effect earlier this month. 

It’s been three weeks since new rules went into effect requiring high school athletes in the state of Michigan to undergo a weekly COVID-19 test to practice and compete for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year, and area school districts have quickly adapted to the new policy.

Every Monday morning before classes begin at Harbor Beach High School, more than 80 prep athletes report for an antigen test. Athletic director Troy Schelke and Superintendent Shawn Bishop are two of the staff members who administer the tests. Harbor Beach has conducted about 250-255 tests over the past three weeks, and just two athletes have tested positive over that period of time. 

Both Schelke and Bishop said that their athletes have taken the whole process in stride, quickly adapting to the new normal in a year where almost nothing has been normal. They know their fellow prep athletes throughout Michigan are going through the same thing.

“Our student-athletes have been nothing but exceptional,” Bishop said. “Their attitude has been good. We’ve had no problems at the point of testing. Maybe it’s a reflection of our kids — we’ve got some really good kids.”

Bishop said testing on Monday morning simplifies contact tracing and acts as a way to isolate an athlete that happens to test positive. The health department will retrace that student’s steps for the previous 48 hours, minimizing the potential impact on any other students.

Harbor Beach has two teams of three staff members plus an alternate that conduct the testing. Those teams include high school principal Aaron Bulgrien, athletic secretary Pat Terrill, teacher Ben Smith, superintendent administrative assistant Deb Hunter and school nurse Tally Hogue. Schelke said he’s grateful that Terrill and Hogue have medical backgrounds, a fact that reinforces a sense of confidence in the process.

Bishop said students arrive throughout the testing period, which lasts about 45 minutes, so backups have not been an issue. Schelke said having so many other staff members pitch in has been invaluable. Many have drawn upon their experience gained from the testing of teachers earlier in the school year and adapted a system that was already in place to test students.

“It’s been a true team effort,” Schelke said. “I can’t imagine trying to handle this alone.”

Harbor Beach has a handful of students who are exempt from the testing requirements because they have recovered from a COVID-19 infection or had positive PCR test results within the past 90 days, have documented proof and are symptom-free.

Support staff upload any positive test results to a state website, and any student-athlete who tests positive has the option to obtain a PCR test and is cleared to participate if those results come back negative. Bishop stressed that the confidentiality of students is a primary concern, and his staff uses numbers to identify students during the testing process.

“We want to give every kid as much dignity as we can,” Bishop said.

Chad Knoblock, athletic director and girls track and field coach for North Huron High School, conducts testing of his student-athletes every Wednesday.
He and a couple of other North Huron coaches perform about 45 tests each week, and no athletes have tested positive so far.

As head football coach, Knoblock gained experience with testing as the Warriors pursued a state title after sports were allowed to resume in January. During the football playoffs, testing was conducted three times a week, so when it came time to set up testing procedures for spring sports, Knoblock said the task didn’t prove to be too difficult. He added that once his student-athletes knew what was required of them, it made the whole process even easier.

“Once the kids understand what their role is, you can move through the tests pretty quickly,” he said. “We’re a finely tuned machine now.”

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