Tension builds as high schools wait for state to decide if sports can return as scheduled – Press Enterprise

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The agony that came with high school sports seasons being canceled in the spring has yielded to the hope of seasons to come in December and January.

From the first stages of modified conditioning workouts to online petitions to discussions with state health officials, high school sports in Southern California are not only preparing for a return to competition, they’re campaigning for it.

But despite those efforts, a question still hangs over the head of high school athletics like a dark cloud: Will sports be able to clear the hurdles created by the coronavirus pandemic and resume as scheduled?

The first week of the football season is planned for Jan. 8 in CIF’s Southern and L.A. City sections. Sports such as volleyball, cross country and water polo are slated to begin in December in the Southern Section.

School officials believe a return appears likely but discuss the topic with measured words and attach conditions. And some don’t believe a return will happen.

Many athletic programs in the region are still waiting to start conditioning drills while many schools remain physically closed and in distance learning. Some areas such as Orange County have experienced improved health conditions while others have fallen back.

“I’m not going to try and predict the future because obviously no one has been able to do that with this virus,” CIF State commissioner Ron Nocetti said this week.

“I think that is still very feasible (to return) as long as we continue to see the improvement (in health conditions) we’ve been seeing.”

As of Wednesday, Oct. 21, four of the seven counties (57 percent) in the Southern Section — the largest section in the state – were in the state’s red tier for tracking the spread of the coronavirus.

The red tier means substantial risk for the virus but schools, for example, can open for in-person instruction.

The counties in the red tier as of Wednesday were Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

The three other counties in the Southern Section are in the purple tier, or the most restrictive group, because widespread risk for the coronavirus. Those counties are Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside, the latter of which moved to the purple tier on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Schools in the purple tier can’t open to in-person instruction. But even before Tuesday, many schools in Riverside County hadn’t reopened their campuses.

“Our state’s numbers have been going down but it wasn’t good to see Riverside County go back up into a more restrictive tier,” said Mark Tennis, editor of CalHiSports and longtime follower of high school athletics.

The tier system uses three metrics to slot counties: case and positivity rates per 100,000 people and the newly introduced equity numbers that track high-risk communities.

The CIF State office is focused on the tier system and hopes that a county’s color standing could lead to the loosening of restrictions that been placed on high school and youth sports, Nocetti and Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod said.

Since about early August, the California Department of Public Health has restricted school-based and youth sports to physical conditioning and skill training in small groups with 6 feet of social distancing. Competitions are not allowed.

In Orange County, for example, most high school programs are in conditioning phases.

Nocetti said the CIF State has been in discussions with the state health agency the past few weeks about the possibility of receiving new guidelines for practices and competition.

“We’ve just shared ideas about what the plan could look like,” said Nocetti, whose organization features more than 800,000 student-athletes.

“Assuming that our numbers continue to hold steady and/or improve throughout the state, we would like to see their guidance allow us to return to practice and competition as we have scheduled.”

The California Department of Public Health “respectfully” declined an interview request but Gov. Gavin Newsom hinted on Monday, Oct. 19, that an update on “team sports” could arrive late this week or early next.

Wigod described the efforts with the state health department as hopefully building “a bridge” between the tier system and the return of high school athletics.

He said the CIF State is interested in health and safety guidelines set specifically for each sport, covering things from sanitizing equipment to the organization of team benches to allowing fans to attend games or events.

“To me, that’s where we’re going to build that bridge from where we are today to the middle of December, again, following the health professionals,” Wigod said.

“It would be a clear message to our schools in each county, when you are at the red tier, this is what you can do. Hopefully, when you are at the orange tier (moderate risk), this is what you can do. … There isn’t going to be competition with purple tier. There just isn’t. We have to get out of purple.”

There are, however, some signs of hope for schools in the purple tier in regards to practices.

The L.A. City Section had its first school — independent charter Birmingham in the San Fernando Valley – hold physical conditioning workouts on Monday in football and girls volleyball, athletic director Rick Prizant said.

The L.A. Unified School District, the biggest player in the section with 88 public high schools, doesn’t have an official start date for conditioning but there’s been speculation that some outdoor training could begin in November.

A L.A. Unified spokesperson said this week the district had no update on athletics.

“In our section, L.A. Unified is the big elephant in the room,” Prizant said. “I’m hoping they get started in November. … If they aren’t (cleared to play) … then there’s not going to be anything, really.”

Tennis believes schools that haven’t reopened for in-person instruction can still practice. Riverside and San Bernardino are prime examples. Both counties have several teams holding modified workouts despite schools being in distance-learning mode.

Corona-Norco Unified was scheduled to welcome back high school students on Nov. 2 but those plans are now uncertain with Riverside County now in the purple tier.

“The virus isn’t going away,” Tennis said. “I think there will be football games played that first week of January at some places in California. How many and where they’ll be played is the big question.”

L.A. City Section commissioner Vicky Lagos said the section is willing to adjust its calendar if it will allow student-athletes to participate safely.

She said league play could become the priority in some sports, an adjustment Wigod also mentioned. Wigod said smaller playoff divisions could be another tweak.

“We are going to provide the opportunity, if we are allowed to by county health guidelines,” Lagos said. “There’s just a lot of unknown and it’s such a fluid situation that we really don’t know what next month is going to look like.”

And while Lagos is optimistic that high school athletics will return, Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and an associate professor of public health at UC Irvine, isn’t so sure.

He is concerned about a “second wave” of the coronavirus and the outbreaks with college teams. The University of Florida, for example, recently encountered an outbreak of the virus among its football players.

“I’m just worried that we’ll see a repeat with high school kids,” Noymer said. “I’m not liking the numbers that I’m seeing.”

Noymer predicts the state health department won’t support the scheduled return of high school athletics at this point.

“I don’t have any inside information from them,” he said of the state health department. “My guess is that they’re going to see the data the same way I do, which is we’re going to be apprehensive of a second wave and they’re going to put the kibosh on it.”

Some parents of high school athletes are frustrated by the restrictions on sports for numerous reasons.

Mina Rose, a mother of two students at Mater Dei, said children are struggling emotionally without competitive sports and families are enduring expenses by traveling out of state to play in club competitions. Some families have moved out of state so their children can compete in sports.

“The kids are suffering,” Rose said. “The affects of the lockdown out-weight the risk of catching COVID. … It’s become a political game.”

Youth sport advocates are holding protests. A rally is planned for Tuesday, Oct. 27, at 5 p.m. in front of Irvine City Hall.

On Monday, Mission Viejo’s football program started an online petition seeking full contact practices be allowed by at least Nov. 9. The reason for the petition, Coach Chad Johnson said, is to allow high school athletes the proper time to prepare for competition.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Mission Viejo’s petition titled “CAPlay2020” had almost 12,000 signatures.

“The Pac-12 guys were saying, ‘We need at least six weeks to get our kids ready to go,’ and that’s at the college level, where they’ve been allowed to lift (weights),” Johnson said.

“I want the high school kids to have a season, but I want it done safety.”

At Ocean View, football coach Luis Nunez said his team would have started practicing proper tackling technique in the spring and continue the efforts into the summer. But this spring, the pandemic physically closed campuses, canceled sports and put those offseason instructions on hold.

Ocean View is conditioning and hopes to start using tackling equipment on Monday, Oct. 26, in the next phase of its workouts. The equipment will need to be sanitized before the next small group can use it, Nunez said.

“My heart really tells me that we’re going to give it a go,” he said of the season. “Not all hope is lost. We’re just hoping to get ready.”

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