High school sports teams struggle to find athletic trainers

When an opposing football player needed an ankle taped for a road game at New Fairfield High School, athletic director Mark Ottusch pulled a golf cart equipped with tape, splints, plasters and crutches to help the player tape up her ankle.

Otusch drives his cart around campus loaded with medical supplies because the New Fairfield school does not have a full-time athletic trainer.

“It can be a challenge,” said Ottusch, who usually hires a trainer for the day or an emergency doctor for football games where a trainer is required. “Our coach left for another job in the last week of August and we were stuck. The job is posted, but the challenge is that there are simply no trainers to be hired. Last year we had four schools in the (Southwest Conference) that didn’t have a coach for part of the year and one school that didn’t have a coach for the whole year.”

However, the problem is not limited to southwestern Connecticut. Across the state, high school athletic departments are scrambling to fill athletic trainer positions – both full-time and part-time. The problem is just the latest torment for high school athletics, which is already having trouble finding enough referees and game officials and consistent bus transportation.

“It’s a mess,” said Jessica Testani, vice president of the Connecticut Athletic Trainers Association. “Because of this crisis, I get calls all the time from schools without coverage. That includes Maloney (Meriden High), who is coming off a state football championship but lost its coach before this year. I find out there, but other schools that call, we don’t have anyone. It will continue to fall.”

It is strongly recommended that all schools have a full-time athletic trainer from the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state’s governing body for high school athletics. The recommendation requires the trainer to be on campus for all games and practices. However, the position is optional.

“Due to the extensive, high-level training required to ensure the safety of students, athletic directors and coaches can no longer be expected to have full responsibility for medical care,” the CIAC states in its handbook.

However, the number of schools in Connecticut without an athletic trainer is likely over 50 percent, according to an ATLAS study. Project ATLAS is a national data collection project overseen by the Korey Stringer Institute at UConn that evaluates athletic training in high schools.

In their survey of athletic trainers in Connecticut, 24 percent said they were full-time, 19 percent part-time, and 6 percent said they did not have an athletic trainer. However, 51 percent were in an unknown status, possibly indicating that the school does not have a full-time educator, Testani said.

Management without a coach

While working at Maloney, which hired her part-time this fall, Testani is often the only coach at home football games because several CCC opponents arrived without a coach.

That included a game against East Hartford High School where Testani sprinted from sideline to sideline treating injured players on both teams.

“The majority of schools can hire someone for home football games, but they don’t travel with a coach,” Testani said. “Thank God nothing terrible happened because I’m in charge of Maloney, so if something serious happened on the East Hartford side, that’s a problem. Working two touchlines at a football game is a nightmare.”

Many schools only have positions for part-time trainers. Testani said he hopes Meriden (Maloney High and Platt High) can get a full-time position created by next year.

East Hartford does not have a full-time coach, but hires coaches from Athletic Trainer Solutions (ATS) for home games. East Hartford athletic director Clevens St. Juste said he hopes the local school will approve a full-time athletic trainer for next year.

So far, he has help in games, but practices have not been disclosed, and according to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, 62 percent of sports injuries in young athletes occur in practices.

“A kid got a bloody nose the other day and we were running around just to cover the basics of that kind of trauma,” St. Just said. “From 2:30 to 3:30, we don’t have a coach to give the kids the treatment they need. We don’t have anyone to clear kids of concussions for return to play, they have to go get checked out by a doctor. We are happy to have coaches at the games but there is no continuity and that is a problem. They cover the games, but they don’t cover 90% of what we need.”

Why the shortage?

There are several factors that contribute to the lack of athletic trainers at the high school level in Connecticut.

Five years ago, athletic trainers became required to obtain a master’s degree instead of just a bachelor’s degree. That has created a gap in the number of athletic trainers graduating, experts say. Then private companies, as well as police and fire departments, began hiring trainers.

Companies find that hiring an athletic trainer reduces the cost of insurance, workers’ compensation, emergency room visits and risk mitigation, allowing them to pay more than school districts because of the money they save the company.

They are able to offer coaches more money, year-round employment and benefits, along with an improved quality of life with days off and nights off, unlike school sports coaches who can cover a football game until 10pm on a Friday night and have to be at a football game on Saturday morning.

Amazon recently hired an athletic trainer in Connecticut for $90,000 a year, according to Testani.

Connecticut high school athletic trainers typically make between $30,000 and $65,000 a year depending on where they are employed, the number of hours worked and their experience.

“It’s great for the educators who get hired, but it’s killing the middle schools,” Testani said. “Why would you want to work part-time for $40,000 less, working in a physical therapy clinic at 7 in the morning, then go and cover a football game at night?” A coach’s work/life balance isn’t always great.”

Many schools, including many in Fairfield County, hire part-time trainers who work for physical therapy companies before coming to the schools.

Masa Shoji coached in Norwalk for 11 years, working 10 hours a week for Innovative Health and Rehabilitation Clinic in Norwalk and 30 hours at Norwalk High, though he often worked more than 30 hours covering night games.

Shoji left Norwalk at the end of the spring season to return to his native Japan, leaving a vacancy at Norwalk.

The ad was posted all summer, but no one took it.

“We haven’t been able to find anyone. We had to change the way we look,” Norwalk athletic director Doug Marchetti said. “A lot of athletic trainers don’t want to work with the model that Massa worked 10 hours at Innovative and 30 hours here. We couldn’t find anyone and third-party companies couldn’t help us because they already had contracts with other schools.”

Norwalk began the school year without a full-time educator, working in parts.

“We covered football games with EMTs and PAs, but not with a coach. We were covering the bases legitimately, but we weren’t getting everything that a full-time trainer provides,” Marchetti said. “The coaches just do so much that the coaches and other staff can’t keep up. Educators can provide therapy, but without an educator, children would have to leave the site and pay for treatments if they needed them.”

Marchetti knew the solution was to create a full-time position through the school board. Marchetti and McMahon athletic director John Cross went to the Norwalk school board explaining the need for a full-time coach and got additional money in the budget to hire one in Norwalk.

Norwalk hired Sidney Ciuffo as its full-time coach this fall.

In East Hartford, St. Just is looking for a similar outcome.

“Hopefully for next year we’ll get it in our budget,” St. Just said. “There are lawsuits popping up all over the country for kids injured without a coach at school. If we don’t get a full-time coach, it could happen to us.”

St Cleves said it knows the problem is nationwide, but it seems to be affecting city schools more.

“What worries me is that all the schools around the central cities are lacking athletic trainers. Hartford, Middletown, Bloomfield, none of them have trainers,” St. Just said. “It’s such a big problem and we need trainers and it seems no city school has any trainers.”

While coaches and athletic directors like Ottusch can tape an ankle or give an athlete an ice bag, they are not experts in evaluating heat-related illnesses, diabetic issues, concussion symptoms or any other serious media situation that may arise. .

Creating full-time positions requires convincing the board of education to invest money, but Testani and others believe the money spent on one trainer is far less than the risk of litigation due to not having one.

“There is no budget that can afford not to consider the lives of student-athletes at risk due to lack of medical coverage and the dire amount of consequences if we don’t do what we can to change that curve,” Testani said. “A coach saved a kid’s life at Woodstock Academy this year when he had a seizure on the sideline. We have to do better in Connecticut to get people back into middle schools. We need to communicate to people what needs to happen to change this, and we need the BOE to be involved.”

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