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A year after tragedy, Hillsborough facing shortage of trainers for high schools

Two of the school district's three providers of athletic trainers no longer will furnish them.
Sunlake High athletic trainer Tara Mendres talks to coach Trey Burdick while athletes warm up for football practice last August. While Pasco County high schools will continue providing certified athletic trainers on all its high school campuses, Hillsborough County currently is struggling with a shortage.
Sunlake High athletic trainer Tara Mendres talks to coach Trey Burdick while athletes warm up for football practice last August. While Pasco County high schools will continue providing certified athletic trainers on all its high school campuses, Hillsborough County currently is struggling with a shortage. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jun. 22, 2020
Updated Jun. 22, 2020

TAMPA — A year after the heat-related death of a Middleton High football player, the Hillsborough County school district is struggling to fulfill arguably the most prominent safety guideline it established in the wake of that tragedy.

Providing a certified athletic trainer on every high school campus.

Two of the district’s three athletic-trainer (AT) providers no longer will be offering the service. Less than two weeks ago, superintendent Addison Davis announced USF’s SMART Institute — which provided 11 ATs — would no longer do so due to COVID-19 concerns.

On Friday, Pennsylvania-based Select Physical Therapy confirmed it also won’t provide ATs to the county once its current contract expires July 24. The number of trainers furnished by Select is unclear.

“Our local clinical operators and sports medicine director connected with the appropriate parties at Hillsborough County High Schools to re-negotiate the contract for the 2020-21 school year,” Select spokesperson Amy Ridall said in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times.

“Unfortunately, the re-negotiation was unsuccessful.”

Related: Middleton player's death highlights area's need for more athletic trainers

Hillsborough school district spokesperson Tanya Arja said the current contract with the three providers always has been for one year, ending Aug. 20, 2020. Select came to the district in May to re-negotiate for the 2020-21 school year, albeit with significant cost increases.

“Due to budget constraints and an uncertain budget for next school year we were unable to come to an agreement,” Arja said.

Pinellas and Pasco counties, which use different third-party providers, anticipate no interruption of certified athletic trainer service at their high schools.

The news of Select’s withdrawal came less than a week after Hillsborough County allowed its student-athletes to return to campuses for highly monitored voluntary workouts.

It also arrived in the wake of Davis’ announcement the school district had reached a financial settlement (of nearly $1 million) with the family of the Middleton athlete, 14-year-old Hezekiah Walters. That same day, Davis announced a sprawling set of measures and protocols to prevent future heat-related tragedies.

Arja said the county is working “diligently” to secure new ATs for the upcoming school year. Until then, it will rely on its own staff of registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, who will be on site from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., “when the temperature peaks,” Davis said.

Additionally, coaches will be required to follow a number of policies and procedures including water breaks every half-hour, having cold immersion tubs ready for use, and designating specific “shade areas.”

But some athletic-training experts question whether this temporary solution is adequate.

“I wouldn’t call it dangerous,” said Chris Fuhrman, a state-licensed certified athletic trainer. “It’s not sufficient.”

J.C. Andersen, director of the University of Tampa’s athletic training program (and a state-licensed certified trainer), said parents have a right to know the staff’s training beyond nursing, particularly as it pertains to the assessment and treatment of heat-stress or heatstroke cases.

“And then what is the expectation that the district has placed upon them as far as how they’re going to manage an acute-injury situation,” said Andersen, whose daughter is a student-athlete at Newsome High.

“I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable that an LPN ― an associate’s degree nurse — would necessarily have the orthopedic skills if they’re going to be dealing with potential decisions about fracture management or dislocation management.”

Meantime, a petition to raise awareness about the shortage of athletic trainers in Hillsborough County had received more than 2,100 signatures as of Monday morning.