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story.lead_photo.caption A pile of Helias defenders stop Rock Bridge fullback Miles Cheatum at the line of scrimmage during a game last season at Ray Hentges Stadium. Photo by News Tribune / News Tribune.

Helias is using this as a learning tool.

Last week, a member of the Helias football defensive coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19 as the Crusaders were going through summer workouts.

"It was a good experience because it was a good wake-up call about what we can do better," Helias coach Chris Hentges said. "We have to ensure to the best of our abilities this doesn't happen again."

After the positive test, Helias canceled all football activities and turned over all information to the Cole County Health Department. The department then did contact tracing with the unidentified coach.

The department decided just the defensive coaches had to go into a 14-day self-quarantine because they had been at indoor meetings. Last Thursday, the offensive coaches and players were cleared to resume practice because they had not had extended close contact with the defensive coach as all interactions were for short periods outside on the practice field.

"We're not bringing large groups of kids into a small area inside," Hentges said.

Parents of all Helias students were notified of the positive test via email.

"We fielded a few questions from families about our process for notifying families, questions related to who needed to be quarantined, and about our plans to return to play," Helias principal Kenya Fuemmeler wrote in an email. "But, we were able to proactively communicate with our staff and families in a timely manner.

"Overall, our Helias community has been very supportive of our efforts to ensure the safety of our students while returning to those athletics and activities they love."

Fuemmeler said the administration is using this experience as a learning tool when school is scheduled to resume next month.

"This was the first time we had to assist in running a contact investigation, so we learned a lot," she wrote. "We now are doing a better job of making sure we have easily accessible contact information for all students, but also grouped by athletics and activities. The faster we can assist in that process the less likelihood of a wider community spread.

"Having a positive case during the summer allowed us to reevaluate how we thought it might work during an actual school day and to develop a better plan.

"The local health department has a tough job in running each of these contact investigations in a timely manner. They did an exceptional job coordinating with our coaches and our school in a timely manner. I feel more confident now that come fall we will be better prepared from this learning opportunity."

With half of the coaching staff unavailable, Helias is splitting up its workout schedule. The seniors and juniors practice one day, the sophomores and freshmen the next.

Players, who are required to have their own water bottle that cannot be shared at practice, enter and exit the locker room in shifts.

"We can minimize their exposure to each other by doing that," Hentges said.

Hentges said the coaches talk constantly to the players about of personal responsibility to stay healthy.

"All the time, all the time," he said. "We stress to the kids the importance of washing their hands and wearing a mask if you can't have social distancing."

In that vein, Helias coaches inside the buildings — whether it's the weight room or in their offices at the stadium — are now required to wear masks.

"We want to be the leaders, to show how important that is," Hentges said.

Helias has two separate football coaches offices — one for the offense, one for the defense. Because of the positive test, a third is on the way as an insurance policy.

"We're in the process of reconfiguring our film room to add a third coaches office," Hentges said. "We're going to have three offensive coaches and three defensive coaches use that office so if we have another coach testing positive, we're not wiping out that entire side of the ball.

"We will always have offensive and defensive coaches in different areas to protect us from situations like this."

Helias is scheduled to open the season Aug. 28 at Hannibal. That is the first of three games outside of Jefferson City for the Crusaders, who will also travel to Hickman and Granite City, Ill. It still hasn't been decided what the travel plans are for the team.

"Are we going to bus to the games?" Hentges said. "How many kids can we safely put on a bus? How many buses are we going to take? Are the players going to go up with their parents? Are we going to play games where there are significant numbers of positive cases?

"There are just so many questions about what the season is going to look like."

After losing the spring sports season due to COVID-19, Fuemmeler sees the earnestness the Helias athletic staff has to make sure fall sports are played as scheduled.

"Our football coaches, and to be honest, all of our coaches, are doing a great job at following our procedures for sanitation, social distancing, and promoting an environment that is safe for them and our students," she wrote. "This situation was a great reminder that we cannot become lax in our efforts.

"It's going to take diligence and persistence in these efforts to return to school and to return to athletics and activities."

Hentges doesn't want to think about a fall without football.

"Everyone who loves football knows it will be heartbreaking if we don't have a season," he said. "I'm talking all levels — pee-wee to high school to college to the NFL. We can control our level of work and preparation and our health. But there are things on the outside that we can't, so we can't worry about them. Just work hard and believe there will be a season.

"I hope everyone can find a way to play football, but you never know."

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