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High School Sports: As districts weigh a return to classrooms, coaches hope sports get the green light
High School Sports

High School Sports: As districts weigh a return to classrooms, coaches hope sports get the green light

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High school classroom instruction will return at some point and in some form in California because it has to.

We know that. So will sports, but how and when?

Could any large-roster sport such as football be suspended for the upcoming calendar year in parts of the state as school districts navigate their way around the coronavirus pandemic that has rattled a good many of us to the core? Everything has to be considered and has been considered, but school districts and governing bodies for high school sports do not want to eliminate or suspend any extracurricular activities — ever.

“For a lot of schools, sports is a way to keep kids active and engaged, to get them to graduate,” said Carl Reed, the athletic director and assistant football coach at Grant, his alma mater in the Twin Rivers Unified School District. “So we need to keep our sports.”

As districts consider what to do with the coming school year, after a spring almost entirely devoid of sports, losing athletics again would “kill high school sports as we know it in Sacramento,” Reed said.

Sheldon softball coach Mary Jo Truesdale of the Elk Grove Unified School District said she already worries about the mental toll of the pandemic on her student-athletes who, like thousands across the region, haven’t been on a campus in nearly three months. No activities. No workouts. No graduation ceremonies outside of drive-by sessions.

Teenagers, Truesdale said, are social creatures who crave experiences, leadership, competition, to enjoy this time of their life, to grow, to develop.

“Students who are involved in school activities do better in class, in life — it makes all the difference,” Truesdale said. “They have extra eyes on them, extra people caring for them, working with them. I know speaking with my athletes in Zoom meetings every week, I could sense their depression of not being involved. I know they’re struggling. It’s hard for all of us. It’s sad. I just keep praying for a vaccine.”

Truesdale added, “I want to be safe. “I’m in the age group where I have to be extra careful with the virus. I would think that if we allow students back on campus, we have to have sports.”

Plans in motion

Those are among the many discussions across the state. All school-district leaders and staff are working on plans to return to campus. A task force for the Sacramento County Office of Education is preparing a recommendation plan to be released next week.

The task force is working in conjunction with the Sacramento County Public Health Office for schools in Elk Grove Unified, Twin Rivers Unified, Folsom-Cordova Unified, Natomas Unified, San Juan Unified and Sacramento City Unified.

The California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for prep sports, is in regular contact with its 10 section commissioners across the state and is preparing “return to participation” guideline for practices and workouts. That will be released in June with protocols for a return to competition also in the works.

The CIF and its 10 sections rely on each school district in the state determine when to open schools and athletic facilities. Caution, everyone agrees, is the key.

“We know this disease is horrible with 100,000 dead from it in this country,” Monterey Trail football coach T.J. Ewing said. “We have to go with extreme caution as we all try to reopen schools, and the liability is so high. What if a kid gets the virus? You worry about lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit. I try to keep sanity with all of this. If this was something I could control, then I’d be worried.”

One school back in action, others soon

Wheatland High last week was granted clearance by its district for conditioning drills, and the Pirates giddily hit the weight room while adhering to guidelines of not packing in.

The green-light go happened in Wheatland because Yuba County, population 79,000, has 28 confirmed coronavirus cases with 24 recovered and one death. The following is some of the data, current as of 3 p.m. Saturday, district officials, administrators and coaches ponder: Placer County, with nearly 400,000 people, has 214 confirmed cases, 165 recoveries and nine deaths. El Dorado County, with more than 192,000 people, has 90 confirmed cases, 65 recoveries and no deaths. Sacramento County, with 1.5 million people, has 1,400 cases, 1,141 recoveries and 56 deaths.

Ewing pointed at the district in his native Bay Area as an example of progress.

Starting June 8, San Mateo Union High School District programs have been cleared for workouts — any sport — on school grounds. There are six schools in the Bay Area district. Sports conditioning will happen under coaching supervision and with county health guidelines to help ensure measures of social distancing, including temperature checks for each student-athlete before drills, no more than 12 in a group at one time.

In education and in sports at this level, everyone pays attention to what others are doing. San Mateo District superintendent Kevin Skelly cleared the way for activity, much to the applause of coaches everywhere.

Said Saratoga football coach/athletic director Tim Lugo to the San Jose Mercury News, “Someday had to be first. Bless Kevin Skelly’s heart. He did the right thing for kids in his community, and it’s going to be easier for the other superintendents to say yes now that they’re not the first.”

Added San Mateo High football coach/athletic director Jeff Scheller, “I can’t even measure the value. We’re doing what probably most other schools are doing. Football-wise, we’re Zoom meetings, Hudl messaging. You can get some things done, and it’s constructive. But at some point, kids just start falling off.

“They’ve been sitting around doing nothing for two months, and that’s dangerous, no matter what sport they’re in.”

The Southern Section in Southern California is the largest of the 10 in the state with nearly 600 schools, and that sheer size presents sizable challenges. Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod told the Desert Sun newspaper of Palm Springs and Coachella Valley that the idea of moving football for some schools into the spring months to ensure a season has been discussed. So has the idea that some Southern Section schools may be closer to a return to athletics than others depending on “local recommendations of the health authorities.”

Wigod added, “So, the message is very loud — ‘Do anything that you can to preserve fall, winter and spring.’ So, all options are on the table.”

What is certain: coaches near and far are eager for a chance to get their kids together outside of laptops and cellphones.

Casey Taylor became Inderkum’s football coach after the COVID-19 pandemic led to him and 24 other administrators getting laid off at Capital Christian.

“The hard part for me right now,” Taylor said, “is I still haven’t met my Inderkum players. Just online. We’re all ready to get something started. We know we have to be careful about this.”

He added, “We have to rely on what our districts say. People have sheltered in place, to get the virus curve down. People already feel their rights have been taken away for so many things. I’ve read where the teenage suicide rate in this state is higher than those dying from virus at that age. I hope we at least have an opportunity to try and reopen with sports.”

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