Well, now what? That question has been a common one since the world was paralyzed due to the worldwide pandemic that is COVID-19. International travel ground to a halt. Schools, churches and business closed. The economy of the United States tanked and the death toll of the pandemic has surged past 100,000. Words like social distancing used to mean keeping away from people you didn’t like and masks were something that people wore at Halloween. They obviously have taken on a new connotation now. Throughout March, April and May, it seemed like it was one bit of bad news piled on top of another. No one really knew what was coming next and no one really knew how to prepare for what might come next. The pandemic has touched every corner of the globe and absent a vaccine – which will most likely not be available until the end of the year or early next Spring – much of the “new normal” will be in place for some time to come. The “now what” questions remain.

For a long time, gray skies seemed to have no silver lining. Recently, however, there have been signs of things getting better. As the weather improved, so too did the trajectory of new infections. The curve was in fact flattened and the worse seems to have passed, at least for now. Even though the world is not out of the woods yet, there is now a renewed sense of optimism. Thoughts have turned from the misery of the first few months of the year to the hope of better middle months of the year and then, on into Fall. June 1, high school athletes were allowed to once again gather to prepare for the beginning of the Fall sports season. The TSSAA has allowed individual school systems to determine what will be best for their schools. “It is totally the decision of local boards of education, directors of schools, and/or heads of school as to how much they are going to allow coaches to do face-to-face activities with their students,” TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress stated in a press release in late April.

“The TSSAA has left it up to the schools and the individual directors of schools to make that determination,”  Grainger head football coach and athletic director Chad Tate said of the decision to bring students back on campus. “(Grainger County Director of Schools) Dr. Atkins said we could start on June 1 so there will be many guidelines involved in all of this. Some of the things appear to be temperature checks, no locker room use and limiting the number of people indoors will be the kind of limitations and guidelines we will use. Obviously, the top priority for us is the health and safety of our students.”

During this time off, Tate said the coaches have prepared for the time when their players would be able to return to the field and are excited to see them once more. 

“Our coaches have met and continue to meet to try to come up with something that is practical and it will be different than what we have done in the past. The best thing for us as coaches is just to get your team back together and get the players back. That’s a big thing for your psyche and we need some positives now because of all the things that have gone on. That will also be a positive for our kids.”

The Grainger Grizzlies, like all schools across the Volunteer State, are looking to the future and hoping things get better as the weather gets warmer. Tate said he is optimistic that sports will return in the Fall despite all the uncertainty that still looms. 

“I want to be positive and in my mind, I have to say that yes, we will be able to go and that is a lot of hope in the face of so much unknown. From a preparation standpoint as a coach and as a school, we have to plan as if we will be going as normal and then we will adjust in case there are any kind of changes to be made by the TSSAA or the government. If they shut things down, or make changes, then we will adjust so I think you have to prepare as things will be normal.”

 A fact of life is that it takes money to run an affective athletic department and the revenue generated by a football team is one of the major sources of revenue for high school sports. Tate said that the Grainger athletics department is on solid financial ground. 

“Our coaches at Grainger have done a great job of managing their finances and we are good financially. We have the funds right now to play. Because player safety is the most important thing, we want to make sure we have the proper equipment to protect them and our coaches here do a good job of taking care of our kids. (Grainger principal Mark) Briscoe does a good job of guiding us as a school to make that a priority, to be in good shape financially.” 

Even though Grainger is good from a financial standpoint, Tate said that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. 

“Sometimes, it can be a struggle for some sports. I have been on both sides of it as a football and baseball coach. Football and basketball are two sports that will make some revenue but then again, those sports cost more than others. As baseball coach, there was more fundraising involved as you needed to have enough to pay umpires and other things. It is a difficult thing to make sure you are where you want to be, but we are blessed here because we have great support from Grainger County.”

Tate and his staff are preparing for business as usual, but with modifications, to best ensure his players’ health remains the top focus. But the Grizzlies are ready to return. 

“‘When are we starting back?’ That’s the biggest question I get,” Tate said of recent conversations with his players. “I know our guys are ready and I hope there is some good to come out of all of this. We talk about never taking things for granted, so I think this is a great example. We say that a lot, but I’m not sure we really mean it, but this is a great example of that. It is important we get them back. You have to be safe, and that will be our top priority, but getting the kids and the students back is a big move forward for us. I hope and pray everything continues to improve and we all get to do what we love to do. The kids love to play and our coaches love to coach. You don’t do all this unless you love kids and love your school. Grainger High School is a very lonely place without our students. All these buildings are meaningless without

our students.”

August 5 is a pivotal day on the school calendar as that is the day the students in Grainger County are scheduled to return to school, to return to some sort of normalcy, to return to the pursuit of their education. Normalcy is much needed according to Tate. 

“You have to set the school calendar as if we will be normal. I’m not sure what the school year will look like and no one does. Things will look a little different, but I think eventually we will get back to some kind of normal sooner, rather than later. As a school, you have to prepare for normal. It’s like the old baseball term: you have to sit on the fast ball and adjust to the off-speed. I think that is what we are doing right now.”