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ACC eyes Liberty's coronavirus testing protocols ahead of nonconference football games

After concerns were raised about coronavirus testing at Syracuse and Florida State earlier this week, testing protocols at Liberty University are now under the microscope for a trio of ACC schools scheduled to play the Flames this season.

On Thursday, Liberty coach Hugh Freeze praised the school's strong numbers, saying the team had not had a positive COVID-19 test in three weeks, but he added that the school hadn't actually performed a single test in the past two weeks because no players showed symptoms of the virus.

"We've gone over two weeks without even having to have to test because no one's screened with any symptoms," Freeze told the (Lynchburg, Va.) News and Advance. "Everyone's out of quarantine. We haven't had a positive in over three weeks."

While the number of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 is difficult to gauge, the World Health Organization suggests as many as 80% of people infected with the novel coronavirus show mild or no symptoms, and the majority of student-athletes testing positive since returning to campus have been asymptomatic.

Syracuse athletic John Wildhack said Freeze's comments were "deeply troublling." The Orange are scheduled to play Liberty on Oct. 17.

"Coach Freeze's comments describing Liberty's inadequate approach to COVID-19 testing are deeply troubling, and pose a threat to the health and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches and staff," Wildhack told ESPN. "The ACC has very clear testing protocols in place that all scheduled nonconference opponents must adhere to.

"Syracuse Athletics refuses to put the members of our football program or our campus community in a position that could potentially compromise the rigorous public health and safety strategy we have put into place."

ACC protocols currently only require schools -- including nonconference opponents -- to screen all players, coaches and support staff weekly beginning with the start of the regular season. NCAA guidelines put out in July suggest Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing should be done weekly during all preseason activities.

"The ACC has clear testing protocols in place. We have communicated those protocols and expectations with Liberty if this game is to occur," an official from NC State, which is scheduled to play Liberty on Nov. 21, said Saturday.

NC State's contract with Liberty would require a $2 million buyout to cancel the game within 12 months of competition unless a force majeure clause was enacted. Liberty is set to earn $1.1 million to play the game.

An official at Virginia Tech, which plays Liberty on Nov. 7, declined to comment publicly on any communication between the two schools regarding testing.

Players at Syracuse sat out of Thursday's scheduled practice due to concerns about insufficient testing on campus. It marked the third time Syracuse players opted out of practice in a little more than a week because of safety concerns. On Friday, Wildhack called the situation "a miscommunication." Coach Dino Babers had said the school was testing bi-weekly, and players were dissatisfied with that.

Wildhack confirmed Syracuse would be testing weekly during the preseason and three times per week once games begin.

The SEC is playing a conference-only schedule this fall, while the ACC and Big 12 will have one additional nonconference game. A number of ACC schools, including Clemson and Notre Dame, do not yet have a nonconference opponent scheduled.

In its plan, the ACC required "all nonconference opponents must meet the medical protocol requirements as agreed upon by the ACC."

Liberty University's guidelines do not require testing without symptoms and suggest testing for asymptomatic students is voluntary. The school competes in the Atlantic Sun Conference but is an independent for football. The A-Sun postponed fall sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Liberty released a statement saying the school continues "to meet all guidelines set forth by Liberty University, the local Department of Health, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the ASUN Conference and the NCAA in terms of its return to campus policies and procedures."

The NCAA guidelines suggest "surveillance testing" during the summer, which would include biweekly testing of a reasonable percentage of players and staff. However, once camp begins, that baseline was supposed to be raised to include "weekly PCR testing of all athletes, plus 'inner bubble' personnel for whom physical distancing, masking and other protective features are not maintained; additional testing for symptomatic and high contact risk individuals."

Liberty held its first practice of fall camp on Aug. 7.

Freeze said Monday that the team had "a few" positive cases earlier in the summer and that those players "were not extremely sick in any manner," according to the News and Advance.

"I think our medical team that we lean on for advice and for protocols, we've been very, very conservative and tried to if there was any chance someone was in the contact tracing, we certainly put them in quarantine pretty quickly to try to protect them," Freeze added.

Liberty defied a statewide order banning gatherings of more than 10 people in March, welcoming students back to campus. At that time, school president Jerry Falwell Jr. said in a release that Liberty had put precautions in place to protect students.

"We have a great story to tell," Falwell Jr. said at the time. "We think Liberty's practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if coronavirus is still an issue."

Falwell took a leave of absence from the university earlier this month.