(Editor’s note: The Teaneck Junior Soccer League made incredible adjustments to make this season happen. To get more insight all the preparations that went into the Fall 2020 season, The Jewish Link sat down with Bill Burke, TJSL’s communications director and U13/U16 Girls Division co-director.)
How did you begin planning for the Fall 2020 season?
Teaneck Junior Soccer League’s board of trustees started exploring the national and state soccer guidelines and attending ready-to-play webinars with the sanctioning organizations in early May. As the weeks progressed, the state of New Jersey, CDC, National Federation of State High School Associations and Teaneck Township provided additional guidance. We also consulted with the Northern Counties Soccer Association to understand their plan for the FC TEANECK club travel soccer teams. The TJSL board used these best practices to develop a return-to-play plan and protocols that would need to be in place for a fall season. The biggest question we had was whether the community wanted to play this year.
How did you get feedback?
In late June, we launched a survey asking families whether they wanted a normal season with games and practices, a season with just training sessions or if they didn’t expect to play this fall. While a majority of the families wanted a normal season, a large portion of the community did not want to play games or would not play this fall. A second survey was then sent to adults that had volunteered as a coach last year. As an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, we rely on parents to volunteer and coach the REC Soccer teams. Fifty nine percent of last year’s volunteers did not want to coach considering the health climate and additional protocols for the season. That created one of the biggest challenges.
How did you solve the volunteer coach issue?
We have worked with professional coaches/trainers for many years. They coach our FC TEANECK club travel soccer teams and provide weekly training clinics for our REC Soccer program. We have brought on eight amazing coaches this season that are nationally certified including several high school coaches and current college players. They are coaching every REC Soccer and FC TEANECK team.
What changes were implemented this season as a result of the guidelines?
First and foremost, we need to conduct a health screening for every player, coach and volunteer that steps on the field and we need to do the screening every time they are on the field. We expect to have to complete more than 10,000 health screenings this season. For this, we knew that we needed an electronic/online solution. Our webmaster solved the problem by modifying our registration system so that it could be used as a health screening questionnaire at no additional cost. Prior to arriving at the field, each participant logs into our website to complete the questionnaire. Then, youth volunteers at the field use tablets to validate the questionnaire and the participant has their temperature taken. It’s easy, fast and allows us to have data available at all times.
Beyond the health screenings, what other changes will players and families see?
Many of the other changes are what we see everywhere. Players wear masks when arriving at the fields, when they are on the sidelines and as they leave. They are also allowed to wear a mask when playing if they want to.
Cleaning and sanitation is top-of-mind. There are hand sanitizer stations at every entry and exit gate. We have also removed benches and are disinfecting goals if they are used during a training session.
We are promoting social distancing on and off the field. Each player’s equipment—jacket, water bottle, backpack—needs to be six feet apart. We have installed 96 gear stations around the Votee Sportsplex that are identified by a banner with a sponsor’s logo and a social distancing message.
We also need to minimize the sharing of player equipment. This year, each REC Soccer and FC TEANECK player received a training pinnie for scrimmages and training sessions as part of their player kit. They must also bring their own ball to every session. REC Soccer players received a ball as part of their kit. There are 12 different colored balls for each team so that everyone has a unique color on the field.
What does the program look like for Fall 2020?
First of all, it is about 50% smaller than normal. Quite simply, we could not sustain a normal program without volunteer coaches. It was both cost prohibitive and impractical with the required protocols. That said, we still have over 400 players in our REC Soccer and FC TEANECK programs. Both programs will feature a clinic-style season with training sessions on weeknights and internal scrimmages on Sundays.
We have also condensed our footprint so that all sessions will be at the Votee Sportsplex. We normally would be using fields across Teaneck but the Sportsplex allows us to control access to the fields which is necessary for the health screening process. Roster sizes are smaller and we have staggered sessions to minimize the flow of players through the health screening process. Players are now exiting through side gates to eliminate bottlenecks. Finally, we are modifying some of the training activities and scrimmage rules to increase social distancing and to further reduce the sharing of equipment.
Tell me more about the youth volunteers.
The youth volunteers are our secret weapon. For decades, high school students have volunteered as youth coaches in our REC Soccer program. They gain community service hours and become eligible for the TJSL College Scholarship program. This season, we did not need youth coaches with professional coaches leading each team. Fortunately, most of the high school students still wanted to participate and we had a record number volunteer. The result is that more than 50 high school students have joined the new Youth Volunteer Program. These students are manning the entry gates, verifying health screenings, taking temperatures, helping players on the sidelines and dealing with player pick up. Honestly, we would not have been able to offer a program this year without their assistance.
What happens if there is a positive case?
TJSL is following the best practices. We do not allow any player, coach or volunteer to participate if they answer yes to any health screen question or if they have a temperature of 100.4 or higher. Our health screening process will flag those individuals before they step on a field.
If a participant tests positive or is presumed positive, the team, and any teams they may have scrimmaged, will have activities canceled for 14 days. If a participant’s family member tests positive or is presumed positive, then the participant will be removed from activities for 14 days. We also have a confidential notification process that includes a medical professional to assist us.
What has been the biggest impact?
Without a doubt, the increase in expenses is the biggest impact. Shifting to professional coaches for all teams, purchasing tablets for health screenings, providing balls and pinnies to hundreds of players and securing all of the sanitization supplies adds up to tens of thousands in additional expenses. That said, we knew that registration fees must be affordable as so many families are struggling. We saw this firsthand with an increase in families needing financial aid this season. In the end, most families are paying about the same amount as in previous years. Luckily, a number of companies are helping via the sponsorship program. It doesn’t cover the shortfall, but the fall season is something we believed that the community wanted and the players needed. It was the right investment.
How is TJSL also helping the Teaneck High School soccer players that had their season canceled?
As part of our initial plan, we had set up FC TEANECK teams for high school students attending the private schools so that they had an opportunity to play soccer this fall. When we learned about the canceled season, we immediately reached out to the THS varsity boys and girls coaches. Although registration for our FC TEANECK program had closed, we knew that we could and needed to help. Working closely with the THS coaches, we invited all of the players to join the FC TEANECK program and nearly 30 THS students are now playing with us. We also brought on the head coach of the THS varsity boys soccer team to lead our FC TEANECK high school boys group and our director of coaching, who is the current head coach at Cresskill High School and a former college coach, is leading our girls team. Altogether, we have 54 high school players from THS and the private schools playing together this season. It is the perfect example of a community partnership and a win-win-win for everyone.