When Casey, Ill., native Kellen Norris was taking classes toward his bachelor's degree in athletic training at Indiana State University in the late 2000s, he learned a lot that benefited his future career.
But no professor could have fully prepared him for 2020, the year of COVID-19, increased racial tensions and arguably the most important presidential election of the last two centuries. (What ever happened to those "Murder Hornets" anyway?)
Now Norris, beginning his second year as ISU's director of Sports Medicine & Performance, is learning with other Missouri Valley Conference athletic-training personnel how to thwart the spread of COVID-19 (aka the coronavirus).
Asked if that subject ever came up in his ISU classes more than 11 years ago, Norris quickly replied: "Absolutely not."
"We’re trained in general medical conditions," he continued. "We have within our staff for Sports Medicine & Performance, we have our Infectious Disease Policy. But for something of this magnitude, no.”
Since March, MVC athletic trainers have been discussing among themselves strategies for minimizing the effects of the virus. In a weird way, that means Indiana State is working as a teammate with longtime rivals Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Missouri State.
“We’re all sharing information from university to university on how we’re doing things," Norris told the Tribune-Star. "I think that’s really important. We’re all trying to help each other.”
That makes sense. After all, hypothetically, what if one player on a Missouri Valley Football Conference team has the virus, plays on game day and spreads the virus to an ISU player or players, who then infect more of their teammates with it?
Norris also has contacted the training staff with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, where he worked before coming to ISU, for additional advice on battling COVID-19.
“We’ve assembled a task force within the university," Norris mentioned. "On that task force, we’ve tried to assemble people who have an idea of what our student-athletes go through on a daily basis.”
About 12 people — including Norris, ISU director of athletics Sherard Clinkscales, ISU associate director of Sports Medicine & Performance Center David McManus and ISU medical director Andy McDonald — make up the task force.
Clinkscales believes Indiana State is heading in the right direction toward combating COVID-19 when student-athletes arrive in full force next month.
“There is no way to be able to try to comprehend or project where this virus is going," he explained. "As the athletic director, my priority is to protect our coaches and our student-athletes. And I’ve been consistent in saying that. We’re trying to do all that we can to provide them with the safety that they need when they’re back here to make sure that they stay healthy.
“Our coaches are so in tuned with our student-athletes in regard to listening and letting them know how serious this really is and that in order for things to work out in the way that we hope, there are going to be some stringent things put into place for them to do their due diligence to stay on top of it.”
As Clinkscales stated, most student-athletes are supposed to arrive on campus in August, although some are already in town working out voluntarily. Exact dates for August arrivals vary, depending on the sport.
“Not everybody is going to come at once," Norris noted. "We’re doing a phased-in progression that started on June 15 and will go all the way up until school starts on Aug. 17 when some of our spring sports athletes will be arriving.”
What are a few new habits that ISU student-athletes will need to remember once they get here?
Norris said they have been educated about the virus and the best ways to avoid it. Some have been informed virtually about new procedures.
It’s almost like they’re taking an extra class, Norris agreed.
“As they come back to campus, we’ll have more education sessions,” he added.
Social distancing will be practiced with varying occupancy guidelines, depending on the size of the room. Regarding spotters in the weightroom, Norris said each athlete will be working out with someone he or she lives with so that a spotter will be someone whom the athlete is frequently around anyway.
“We’re using masks in all of our facilities," he emphasized. "We’re providing them for our student-athletes. ... We’ve also increased our screening of our student-athletes before they even arrive to campus.”
For example, the university will make sure none of its student-athletes took summer trips to at-risk locations in the world.
Norris said testing for COVID-19 will be at the discretion of McDonald and the team physicians. Clinkscales said student-athletes who test positive for the virus after showing symptoms will be quarantined for 14 days.
Student-athletes, coaches and department heads aren't the only ISU campus inhabitants to be affected by coronavirus preparation.
“We’ve met with everybody who would have a role in any cleaning, disinfecting or sanitization of any facilities that our student-athletes would use," Norris pointed out. "So we’ve revamped the protocols there.
“We’ve also increased our time between groups [working out] for increased cleaning. For example, when a team works out in the Sports Performance Center, there’s a dedicated amount of time just for cleaning before the next group comes in.”
Lifting groups are limited to 12 athletes at a time.
“Our main goal is that they feel comfortable coming back and they feel safe ... and they know the environment they’re coming back to is safe, to the best of our abilities," Norris stressed. "So we need to educate them on what we’re doing and keep them in the loop.
“We’re asking them to do a lot of different things that they didn’t have to do when they left here March 11.”
Clinkscales and Norris certainly sound prepared. But if 2020 has taught the world anything, it's that anything unpredictable can happen at any time.
“I think we’ve all learned through this whole time that this is the plan ... 'til it’s not," Norris answered honestly.