Sports inside a bubble: How one CNY school goes to great lengths to play (video)

Homer, N.Y. — Homer High School is bordered by Route 281, Copeland Avenue, Center Street and Park Avenue.

It’s a tidy, small-town rectangle that bustles with activity. And these days, if you squint just hard enough, you might see an athletic link between this rural patch of land and the cities of Orlando, Edmonton and Toronto.

That first location is where the NBA has crafted its playoff bubble. The Canadian metropolises hosted enclosed NHL postseason play. Now, thanks to the tenacious work of athletic director Todd Lisi, his staff and community parents, Homer has tailored a “bubble” of its own to meet the safety demands of trying to operate a scholastic sports season in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.

“For us, I think the bubble is a reassurance to our families and community that we are taking the health and safety of our student-athletes and raising our expectations with that bubble. All we heard about in the beginning of Covid was the NBA is going to try to do this, NHL is going to try to do that. So thinking about what they were doing and then narrowing that scope down to something that we can do here to provide an atmosphere that could keep our student-athletes safe and make sure our parents feel comfortable letting their children play.

“Because right now we have families that maybe were halfway. Like I don’t know if I want my child to participate right now based on Covid and our concerns with it. So if we chose to do sports, I wanted to make sure that they knew that we were going to exceed the expectations and standards.”

The guiding principle of Homer’s bubble is the same of its fellow projects in pro sports: tightly regulate the number of people who come and go on the fields of competition. Lisi took that bottom line and tried to wrap it as tightly as possible around his athletes.

His challenge is that Homer, a large Class B school, offers all levels of fall sports (New York state pushed off high-risk activities football and volleyball to March 1). Roughly 120 varsity athletes on the cross country, tennis, field hockey and soccer teams use the expansive athletic grounds for every practice.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a Sept. 21 start day for the moderate risk sports, Lisi attacked the challenge with a tunnel vision honed during his days as Solvay’s head football coach.

He created a master site plan and put it together in a power point presentation for parents. The sports rotate between early and late practices, requiring varying dropoff and pickup points. If an athlete is not dropped off within 15 minutes of their designated time, they can’t come in.

Homer is offering a hybrid method of school. Some students are in school for two days a week and at home for three, and others are home full-time. That created the puzzle of creating smooth transitions for practices.

Practice times are staggered so that athletes aren’t waiting around the complex too long. Since the in-school athletes were already screened earlier in the day, once the final bell rings they are allowed to move to the complex.

Locker rooms are closed, so the concession stand has been turned into a temporary changing facility. Once the athletes change, they are taken to a socially distanced area and watched by a supervisor until that sport’s coach is free to leave school and take over.

Homer High School

Homer cross country runners wait in line to do a coronavirus temperature check before starting practice on Tuesday.N. Scott Trimble | strimble@syra

Athletes who are learning from home are dropped off at specific times and locations. They are funneled toward school workers, who give them a coronavirus screening. Those athletes, who are supposed to come to the complex already dressed in workout gear, are then directed to join their waiting teammates.

During practice, school supervisors patrol the perimeter to make sure there’s no unauthorized entry of the grounds. Cross country runners, of course, run a course off campus but are accompanied by coaches.

“When I first started thinking of what we can do and what we can do here to keep our students safe I thought to myself, if my son were here and he were playing sports, what would I expect of his athletic director? What would I want his athletic director to do?,” Lisi said. “So, when I make the decision I make the decision like, these are my children. So really what it comes down to is, this is our community and these are our kids and I’m treating them like our own. So when I say I go above and beyond to try to keep this a safe environment, that should be the expectation for our children.”

Homer High School

A panoramic view of the Homer High School athletic facilities. (Submitted photo)

Lisi compiled a massive list of bullet points and contingencies. He finished them the night of Sept. 22 and fired out an email to parents letting them know that Homer athletics were a go.

“It went back and forth. A lot of communication with the coaching staff. I had a rough draft, I sat down with my superintendent Mr. (Thomas) Turck and our assistant superintendent Mr. (Michael) Falls. We looked at it, looked at our expectations and then I took that rough draft, showed it to the coaches and then after awhile we narrowed down the most important details,” Lisi said. “There were a lot of bullet points. We put some together but we also wanted to make sure that we didn’t overload people with information. Quality over quantity. But we didn’t miss anything that could be important.”

And a little more than a week into its implementation, the hectic and ever-evolving system seems to be holding up well. For the most part, the same is true of Lisi.

“Being very critical of myself I think we can do better. But I know that it’s going really well because the community and the parents are super supportive,” Lisi said. “I take 1,000 percent of the blame on this one (if anything goes wrong). All the credit goes to our coaches, goes to our kids and goes to our community. I want to make sure that they have an enjoyable experience and that what I do behind the scenes they don’t see. I want them to feel, especially the seniors, I want to honor them, I want them to feel as if nothing is going on right now and that everything is good and there’s no stress for them. They’re just out there having fun. They shouldn’t see what’s going on beneath the surface.”

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Lindsay Kramer is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard and syracuse.com. Got a comment or idea for a story? He can be reached via email at LKramer@Syracuse.com.

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