ECU shifted undergraduate classes online a little more than a week ago. That move came after an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases and quarantines among students, prompting the university to shutter residence halls to anyone who did not have an extenuating reason to be on campus.
In the exempt category are international students, those who do not have access to an internet connection at home and, of course, student-athletes. Numbering over 350, a good number of those student-athletes live in residence halls on campus while others may be scattered in apartment complexes in and around Greenville.
With the number of open residence halls now limited, Associate Vice Challencor for Campus Living, William McCartney, said over a live stream not long after the decision was made to shift to online course instruction, that many of the remaining student-athletes on campus would be grouped together in the same residence hall. On the surface, that sounds like a bubble environment, something many have suggested would be impossible for colleges around the country.
Not having the general student body on campus will certainly help ECU keep its COVID-19 numbers down, but head football coach Mike Houston is not completely convinced that his players are living in a bubble.
“I’m pretty sure that about 75% of our student body is in Greenville, North Carolina,” Houston said on Tuesday. “I don’t know how much away they are from the student body, and that’s why it’s so important that these apartment complexes and everything — that they’re just being very, very safe.”
While classes are not meeting in-person for the remainder of the fall semester at ECU, football players are still utilizing study hall facilities and quiet rooms on campus to participate in their classes and complete their homework.
“We have study hall throughout most of the day,” Houston said. “It is a socially distanced, but a supervised study hall. That’s what a lot of their morning and around lunch time of the day is. Obviously their classes are online classes. Some of those, if we have an at-risk kid or a freshman, they may be doing their online class in a study hall area. A quiet room to where they’ve got a little bit of a quiet surrounding to really focus and concentrate. We get them about 2-2:30 in the afternoon and we have them to about right now (6 p.m.).”
During his live stream Q and A a couple weeks ago, McCartney said he anticipated around 800 students remaining on campus. With most of ECU’s student population living off-campus, however, it is possible that many of the 30,000 currently enrolled are still within a few miles of the Cupola.
For Houston and his staff, the worry about keeping his players safe and healthy does not begin until his players’ classes are over and they have been dismissed from practice and workouts for the day.
“Now, are they completely avoiding the outside world? I hope that they’re being as cautious as we’re asking them to be when they leave us,” Houston said. “They’re just like the rest of us, it’s kind of a personal decision as to how you handle yourself when you get away from the facility.”
The Pirates have already had to pause football activities once since formal preseason practice began on July 31. Ten positive COVD-19 cases were identified, prompting the pause on Aug. 20, while Athletic Director Jon Gilbert confirmed last week that 30 individuals associated with the program were either isolated or quarantined.
On Tuesday, that number was down to 23 as the Pirates returned to practice for the first time in 12 days. That number still represents a significant portion of ECU’s personnel that can not participate in football activities.
With a positive case or close contact, individuals have to be quarantined or otherwise isolated for anywhere from 10-14 days. NCAA guidelines suggest a close contact is not able to test out of quarantine, while a positive individual must pass a COVID-19 test before they are cleared. Even after that, however, players are put through a “return to play” protocol that gets them back into the swing of activities after such a long time away.
“It’s about a seven day deal of just kind of slowly easing back with the athletic training staff,” Houston said. “They’ll give them to us for practice and then you can’t just throw them out there at 100 miles an hour the first day after being off that long. When you’re in quarantine or you test positive, it’s going to put you out for a while.”
With only 23 days separating the Pirates from welcoming UCF to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the season-opener, individuals impacted by COVID-19 from here on out would likely not be ready to play against the Knights due to all the protocols and protections that are currently in place.
For that reason, Houston is trying to get across to his players how important it is that they follow guidelines and procedures so they can remain healthy for the beginning of the season.
“We talk to them about wearing a mask, social distancing, following protocols and sanitation, avoiding groups,” Houston said. “I’ve just impressed upon them just how important it is right now. If we were to have a kid that tested positive right now, I doubt he would be available for the UCF game. It’s just so critical that they follow those protocols.”