Plan in Place?

January 15, 2019

As Program Director of Athletic Training at Wichita State University, Rich Bomgardner, EdD, LAT, ATC, CSCS, is familiar with the latest sports medicine topics. This fall, however, things got more personal when his son suffered a concussion playing high school football. According to KAKE News, the experience inspired Bomgardner to take a look at return-to-learn protocols, and he was surprised at what he found.

It started when Bomgardner’s wife first emailed their son’s teachers to find out what the school’s plan was for managing concussed athletes in the classroom. The responses she received left Bomgardner concerned. 

“My wife sent an email to the teacher in his high school and by the next morning we had a reply from one of his teachers that was assigning him a homework project and a deadline before he’d even seen a physician,” Bomgardner said.

This response reflects the lack of knowledge some educators have about concussions, says Patrick Pirotte, OD, a physician with the Brain Trauma Rehabilitation Clinic at Child and Family Eye Care in Wichita. 

"There's four million concussions per year.  The vast majority are going to be in young people.  Don't let your athlete or student suffer," he explained.  "But there's just a gap of information that schools and teachers have and school nurses have."

Without a return-to-learn protocol, schools have no way of accommodating student-athletes who suffer concussions, who sometimes have a very challenging path back to the classroom.

"Some of your really severe concussions might even cause kids to drop out of school for a semester," Bomgardner said.

Even for those who do return right away, lingering concussion symptoms can make schoolwork very difficult.

"Vision therapy and understanding how important vision is to academics...blurred vision, double vision.  Students won't be learning at the same level because they can't see things clearly," Bomgardner said.

To find out whether his son’s school was unusual in not having a return-to-learn plan for athletes with concussions, Bomgardner decided to do some research. He discovered that, in fact, very few states (only five) have any such plan—although every state has a return-to-play strategy in place.

Bomgardner took his research a step further, surveying 1,200 Kansas teachers about their experiences with concussed students. Forty-four percent said they had, at some point, taught students who displayed learning problems as a result of a concussion. Math and foreign languages were some of the subjects these students struggled with the most.

After accepting a grant from the National Federation of State High School Associations, Bomgardner is planning to broaden his research on return to learn. His goal is to improve return-to-learn protocols to improve the transition back to school for concussed student-athletes.

"Hopefully one of these days, years down the road, when a student returns to school immediately that plan is put into place. [Every] teacher knows what their responsibilities are, [and] the parents [are] understanding of their role in this plan is as well," Bomgardner said.

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