csba at issue
By Alisha Kirby
State and local groups push for a return of student athletics

n Februarys past, high school stadiums would be awash with the flood of lights, the crack of helmets and the resounding cheers; gymnasiums pierced by the squeak of tennis shoes and the thud of a volleyball hitting the wood after a solid spike.

At the time of this writing, however, the majority of students remain in online learning, and those who are in a classroom are required as part of California’s reopening guidance to remain socially distanced. It makes sense then that, as of now, only outdoor, non-contact sports such as cross-country, track, swimming, golf and tennis are open for participation.

But coaches, parents and student-athletes are pushing to get back into competition and start the high school sports season. A grassroots movement that originated on Facebook called “Let Them Play CA,” has organizing rallies across the state to advocate health officials to let kids play organized sports. And the Golden State HS Football Coaches Community met with officials from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office on Feb. 2 to lobby for the California Department of Public Health to ease guidelines currently barring high-contact sports like football.

“I’m very, very hopeful that we can find a compromise here and I believe that’s possible as long as these case rates continue to move in the direction they’re moving,” Newsom said in a press conference the following day. “We want to see this happen. We want to do it safely.”

That pressure is felt at the local level as well, said Oceanside Unified School Board trustee Eric Joyce, who has heard from many coaches and families that they want their children to be back on the field as soon as safely possible.

A former student-athlete himself, Joyce said he feels deeply for the students who may not be able to participate in the thing they love most.

“My experience as a student-athlete does give me a window into what our current student-athletes are going through,” Joyce said. “When we are young it is so hard to see beyond the current moment. It would have been devastating for me to have lost a season, or multiple seasons, due to conditions outside my control.”

Soccer boy in the back seat of a car with a mask on
Athletics, like other extracurricular activities, provide a unique opportunity for children to build character in ways that are unavailable in the classroom, he explained. For others, participation in a school sport could be the thing that keeps them regularly attending class and working to maintain high grades at all.

“There are some students who find their opportunity to shine through athletic activities,” Joyce said. “Some of those students may not feel the same way about academics and so sports can be the tether that keeps some of our youth engaged in the academic environment.”

While Oceanside students are definitely feeling the hurt, the community has been “all hands on deck” when it comes to keeping student-athletes looking forward to their future. Each secondary school has an engagement plan for working with students that focuses on keeping them engaged and practicing in their season of sport.

Current guidelines and adjustments
Under current CDPH guidance, outdoor physical conditioning, practice, skill-building and training that can be done maintaining 6 feet of physical distance is permitted in all counties. Sports can resume for full participation in tiers corresponding to the sport’s level of contact and transmission risk, and the level of community spread in the associated tier. (Find which sports are allowed in each tier here: https://bit.ly/3pQ72Z4)
The CDPH announced Feb. 19 that youth and recreational sports will be allowed to resume in counties with fewer than 14 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents beginning Feb. 26 following new guidelines. People age 13 and older must be tested every week to play or coach football, rugby and water polo, and test results must be available within 24 hours of competitions. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state would cover the cost of the tests. Learn more about the new guidance: https://bit.ly/3dcqKZS. And to stay up-to-date on all COVID-19 news and guidance, visit csba.org/covid-19.
The lack of competition is clearly a “huge missed opportunity” for the more than 860,000 student athletes in California, said Rebecca Brutlag, media relations officer for the California Interscholastic Federation. That said, CIF is trying to keep up with the ever-changing regulations, rules and challenges and come up with strategies that will allow for a safe return to play as soon as possible.

“Everything we’ve done is with the health and safety of the students in mind and their families. Obviously, we didn’t anticipate something of this nature of happening — a pandemic — and it’s been difficult,” Brutlag said. “Our whole focus is: ‘how can we create opportunities for these student-athletes?’ It’s about all the student-athletes and the missed opportunities for them, and we just can’t wait to get back on that field and allow that to happen. That’s why we keep changing and evolving our plans according to what’s been thrown at us.”

For example, Season One sports such as traditional competitive cheer, cross country, football and girls volleyball, which run from January through April, have had state championship events cancelled in order to provide opportunities for more athletes to be able to participate during regular season contests and make their section championships.

“The higher you go in those state and regional competitions, the less teams are able to participate, so we’re trying to provide more opportunities so that everyone can participate when we get to start this up which again,” Brutlag explained. “Everything has been abbreviated so that more students get more opportunities to play. Our state championships, in some cases like for basketball, have been shortened to be a one-week event. We used to have it over two weeks.”

The CDPH return to play guidelines released on Dec. 14 declared Jan. 25 as the date when competition between two teams could begin, regional COVID-19 case rates permitting. Brutlag said that finally having a target date could be a motivator to help student-athletes keep their chins up. Unfortunately, there was yet another surge in cases and hospitalizations, and the state competitions were again in limbo.

The CIF updates its website every Tuesday with the latest information provided by the state health department on COVID-19 positivity rates and county tier status, and filters it through the prism of ‘what does this mean for high school athletics?’ Those weekly updates and be found at https://bit.ly/3cI2iRy

Despite the disappointment, Brutlag said she knows many students are still doing workouts on their own, as well as staying in contact with their teams and coaches and practicing in-person whenever safely possible.

Joyce said everyone is looking forward to returning all student athletes to practice and competition as soon as practicable following county and state guidelines, and that Oceanside would continue to follow the advice of public health professionals.

“We know that this has been difficult for so many student athletes, coaches, families and our community,” Joyce said. “I wish that we could give this special time back to our athletes, just as I do for all of our scholars. When it comes to the health of our community, we recognize the need to take the long view.”

Alisha Kirby is a staff writer for California Schools.