Once high school athletics is able to safely resume competition, it will undoubtedly be accompanied by a slew of modifications, new requirements, and unique challenges. Now more than ever, the health and safety of students has been at the forefront, but there remains a sizable hole in that effort on many high school campuses across the nation.
Fans of professional and college sports have become accustomed to seeing an athletic trainer on-site during competition, ready to enter the playing field when a player suffers an injury. At the high school level, however, many student-athletes compete without a certified athletic trainer on-site, leaving them exposed to a greater risk for injury.
According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Athletic Training, 34 percent of high schools across the country do not have an athletic trainer on campus. In California, that number jumps to 47 percent of high schools. Of the schools in the state who do have an athletic trainer, only 13 percent are in a full-time position.
“We’re already stretched thin as it is,” said Jennifer Hernandez, athletic trainer at St. Anthony who is now in her fifth year with the Saints. “The kids aren’t getting the full-time coverage that they need, and now this is one more thing where we need an extra set of eyes and ears to take care of our kids, but we already can’t do it as it is … I think it’s a disservice that we’re sending a kid onto the court or the field but we don’t have the basics they need if something were to happen.”
If the 2020-21 sports season plays out as scheduled, the athletic trainer on site will be stretched further than ever. The condensed calendar will mean more games happening simultaneously, without more staff or resources to cover those contests. During the spring season there will be 16 different sports in season. In some weeks there will be an average of about 10 league contests happening on any given day, just at the varsity level. Furthermore, the challenge of enforcing COVID safety measures, conducting temperature and symptom screenings, as well as keeping up with additional sanitization measures, will make the job of the athletic trainer even more challenging.
“I’m looking at that spring schedule and thinking that’s almost going to be impossible to cover,” said Kam Weller, the athletic trainer at Lakewood High who is in her 29th year at the school. “We have to go back to the old school approach where the collision sports are covered first. But I’ll have to decide, do I cover basketball or soccer?”
Weller is a full-time teacher at Lakewood, and receives an additional stipend to be the school’s athletic trainer. Her role as a teacher is what allows her to be on campus all day, but the athletic trainers at the other high schools in the district all serve in a “walk-on” capacity. In Long Beach, the school district offers $3,850 stipends to compensate the schools’ athletic trainers, with two stipends offered for fall, and one each for the winter and spring season. That adds up to $15,400 per school year to cover every sport on campus.
“I can’t even imagine being a walk-on,” Weller admitted. “When someone is not on campus and not constantly in the know, sometimes the athletic trainer is the last one to know things. It’s like being a walk-on coach, it’s a lot harder to do than if you’re there all day.”
Jenn Spanjer spent four years as the athletic trainer at Long Beach Poly before moving to Irvine High School, where she was offered a full-time position. Spanjer has 14 years of experience in the field, and her husband, Jarrod, is the head athletic trainer at Long Beach State. She said that her intention was to stay in Long Beach, but she couldn’t pass up a full-time opportunity.
“The only reason why I left Long Beach Poly was for a more financially stable job,” she explained. “At Irvine, we’re hired through the district as employees. We get benefits, we get overtime. We’re normal employees. I loved working at Poly, and the administration tried to figure out ways to pay me and get more from the district, but there was no stability.”
Without a full-time position for athletic trainers, there can often be a revolving door of new faces serving in that role. That presented a host of challenges, even before the pandemic hit.
“I see the relationship in getting kids care, it’s hard to not have someone there consistently,” Spanjer said. “If you’re not there consistently, the kids aren’t going to trust you and they’re not going to show up for treatment. They think ‘Who are you? Just the person who shows up on Friday night?’ There’s a trust you have to develop with your athletes. You’re there with them in their worst moment but also in their best moments, but you have to have that relationship with them.”
Hernandez said that in her experience, she is often the only medical professional that athletes have regular access to. Whether they’re a St. Anthony athlete or from an opposing team, they rely on the presence of an athletic trainer at game to help with even the simplest injuries or medical needs.
“I’ve encountered student athletes from other schools that come to St. Anthony, and they’ll find me to ask for help,” Hernandez said. “It’ll be weeks and I’ll ask if they followed up with an athletic trainer or a doctor, and they’ll say they don’t have one at school and they don’t have insurance, so they can’t see a doctor. It’s pretty heartbreaking; I do the best I can. Sometimes it’s as simple as an ingrown toenail or a turf burn that got infected. That’s something really simple that they should’ve gotten basic care for. But I’ve had athletes that don’t have band-aids at home and ask to take a couple extras home with them. It’s very unfortunate.”
Spanjer said that in her experience, this is an issue that most parents are oblivious to, and they often assume that their child has the medical care they need at games or practices.
“Most parents, at any level–be it club, pop warner, all the way up–assume that coaches have knowledge regarding injuries. Some do and are fantastic, but many of them don’t,” Spanjer explained. “Parents assume someone is there as a medical professional looking out for their kids. But unfortunately in a lot of situations, especially in California, they’re not.”