Ski instructing pivots for COVID

Conor Villines
Special to the Sierra Sun
In this file photo, Pat Quinn of South Lake Tahoe throws a stylish air at Donner Ski Ranch. Ski schools are pivoting to face coronavirus this winter.
Photo by Scott Thompson

KNOW & go


Phone: 530-426-3666


Where: 19749 Boreal Ridge Road, Soda Springs


Tahoe Donner

Phone: 530-587-9444


Where: 11603 Snowpeak Way, Truckee


Donner Ski Ranch

Phone: 530-426-3635


Where: 19320 Donner Pass Road, Norden,


Northstar California

Phone: 530-562-1010


Where: 5001 Northstar Drive, Truckee


Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows

Phone: 800-403-0206


Where: 1960 Squaw Valley Road, Olympic Valley


Rene Mendoza’s first year as ski school supervisor at Donner Ski Ranch was cut short when winter resorts were some of the first businesses to close because of COVID-19 last March.

Sitting at his resort’s bar this fall, Mendoza described last year’s work as rewarding and fulfilling.

“But I was cheated out of a full season running our ski school,” Mendoza said. “This year is about safety and teaching people.”

Mendoza is juggling a lot of ski school questions this second year supervising: How do his ski instructors stay socially distanced in a locker room? How will his team members appear welcoming with masks over their faces?

Ski schools are pivoting to face coronavirus this winter. Idea sharing within the industry is supplementing inconsistent government guidance to answer many of Mendoza’s questions, but the lack of universal regulations for socially distanced ski schools is resulting in a wide spectrum of plans for teaching new skiers.

Random pairings of individuals in group ski lessons are frowned upon by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so these group lessons will be cancelled altogether in many learning programs. Resorts choosing this option will be left offering only private lessons, which are more expensive and likely to be limited as well. Dozens of ski schools across the United States managed by Vail Resorts will limit their lessons to six people or less.

Criteria for who can be in lessons is also in flux. Bryan Schilling directs Homewood Mountain Resort’s ski school and believes “students under 7 years old are just too vulnerable” to be taught without nearby parents this year. Homewood is not the only resort where instructors won’t be allowed to help adjust toddlers’ loose gloves or runny noses. To drive this point home, the ski school’s Children’s Center is expected to shut down this winter.

Schilling’s ski school locker room will likely be shut too. The crowded indoor chamber is a vector for coronavirus. Changing boots and jackets will tentatively happen in an instructors’ car this season.


Instructors’ experiences will change the day they virtually check in to Tahoe Donner’s ski school. Instead of the usual, large in-person staff training, supervisor Dave Walker said “this year I’ll likely train the staff from an empty room with a camera using Zoom or Google Classroom.”

An important new training topic for Dave’s instructors will be choosing words more carefully and being more expressive with their hands to build rapport with clients while they are required to wear a mask.

Ski instructor teams are also planning to teach with a smaller number of instructors than in the past. Mendoza supervised a dozen American instructors and slightly more than a dozen South American college students using the J-1 visa to work as ski instructors last season. This year he will be unable to recruit any J-1 workers until international travel restrictions change.

The closest thing to universal guidance comes from Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), which broadcasts safety recommendations for instructors across the country. Coronavirus has made idea sharing across the industry bigger now than it has ever been and is changing ski schools all across the country.

PSIA’s president Nick Herrin told an audience of ski school directors via podcast on Sept. 17 how their peers in California, New Mexico and Michigan plan to schedule lessons using social distancing. New Zealand and Australian ski school directors have also shared their challenges and solutions during the southern hemisphere’s winter season between June and August. Individual ski schools are deciding how to adopt these suggestions in compliance with their own state and county government regulations.

Public health is fluid, and so are ski lesson pivot plans. Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort’s ski school director Dan Healy said he has “four scenarios to choose from for flexibility based on changes in government policy changes or the health situation.” He’s waiting to develop a better idea as winter gets closer.

Mendoza said that plans can be upended, if this winter will look anything like the previous 10 months of COVID-19. “We’re still evaluating. Everyone should be like this, it’s too early to tell. We can wish and hope, but are still dependent on government rules that change.”

Ski school updates on resort websites will be more important this year than before. Mendoza recommends people call individual ski schools and check a resort’s website before booking a lesson this winter.

“I don’t want a unique year to stop me from teaching,” he said.

Conor Villines is a freelance writer from Truckee.

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