On the same day that health care workers began to get the first shots of a new, game-changing vaccine, the California Department of Public Health announced long-awaited guidelines for youth sports (including all high schools). There’s good news and bad news in there for those involved in football, boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball. The CIF itself also may consider scrapping its current calendar to match the CDPH guidelines and it will make attempts to get some of them altered. We’ll go through it all in this post hoping for the best but knowing it’s still a long, hard road ahead.
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When the Coronavirus pandemic began last March, all of the public health experts warned that the worst phase of the entire experience was going to be in the winter. They were sure right about that, and last Friday the state had the highest number of deaths and confirmed cases in a single day so far. It’s also possible that won’t be the high point of the surge, especially for the next few weeks as those new cases become hospitalizations.
Late that same day last Friday the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave approval to the first vaccine by Pfizer and by Monday there were needles going into the arms of health care workers at medical centers from coast to coast. One televised report compared the first invasion of needles carrying vaccines to D-Day in World War II.
Monday also became one of those days when there was a major announcement relating to the upcoming restart dates for high school sports in California. This one wasn’t from the California Interscholastic Federation but from the California Department of Public Health, which handed out guidelines that the CIF and school districts in the state can use for charting its course back to normalcy.
All fall sports, including football, were first delayed from their usual starting times in August by the CIF due to a mid-July surge of hospitalizations and cases of the Coronavirus. At that time, the CIF pushed any first games or competitions beyond the usual two-week Christmas/New Year’s holiday school break with practices beginning as early as December 7 in some CIF sections. All winter sports, including boys and girls basketball, were grouped with the usual spring sports, including baseball and softball, and were pushed back to starting times later in the spring than usual.
Since then, the CDPH has introduced a four-colored tier of reopening phases for each of the state’s 58 counties. Even back in the summer, the state wasn’t mostly in purple, which reflects the highest totals of positive cases and infection rates. In recent weeks, it’s all gone purple. And not only that, but approximately 60 percent of the state representing Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley have fallen below just two percent in having intensive care beds available for patients in their hospitals and have returned to stay-at-home orders at least for three weeks. The home county for this web site, San Joaquin, has been as low as 0 percent.
In early December, the CIF postponed fall sports again since it was still waiting for the updated youth sports guidelines from the state and needs those for moving schools and teams beyond just the simple workouts they’ve been doing in recent months. The current surge also was well underway, moving those counties that hadn’t been under the most restrictive orders into the highest. At that time, the plan was for practices to begin perhaps a week or two after January 1.
With the CDPH guidelines now out, it’s stipulated that no athletic competitions can be held until January 25, 2021. Schools can continue to workout and practice in small groups even if its counties are purple. The CDPH did mention, though, that it would review the data on January 4, 2021 and could make a change based on more updated totals regarding infection rates and case numbers.
The CDPH also released a list of sports that could be held (beginning Jan. 25 for now) even if its counties remained in the purple tier for reopening plus those sports that could be held in the red (second worst), orange (third) and yellow (fourth). The yellow has generally been the one in which regular pro sports events (with fans) can be held.
It’s important to stress as well that the CDPH only releases guidelines. Each county public health department can issue different, more restrictive orders. And when it’s all said and done, each school district would have final say over what happens in its schools and with its high school sports teams.
With the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine plus another one from Moderna that is likely going to be just one week behind, we know that there is going to be a major reduction of the pandemic’s impact coming later in 2021. How that goes depends on whether most people get vaccinated. How it impacts high school sports in California likely depends how quickly teachers and coaches get vaccinated. If the teachers are more in front of the line, so to speak, say behind health care workers and the elderly living in group settings, then the faster they’ll feel more safe about going back into the classroom for full-time in-person instruction. Some school districts, such as L.A. Unified, may require at least that there be hybrid learning going on in its schools before extra-curricular activities can resume.
All of those guidelines, and for schools to move away from full distance-learning models, need for the COVID-19 numbers to drop back to their late September or early October levels. Does anyone really think that’s going to happen any time soon? And what about when all of the people who are going to gather for Christmas parties start getting sick later in January? There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen, but surges have followed holidays so far. One month from now, if we’re in another surge or the current numbers don’t come down, we would expect to be talking about no fall sports at all for the 2020-21 school year and more drastic measures, such as much later starting dates for sports that can’t begin until their counties are in the red or yellow tier. The vaccines are coming, but it’s going to take a few months for those shots to really knock down infections and people therefore still need to be vigilant in wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel,” said Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday.
It’s good that these new guidelines have come out at all because they had been delayed for several weeks. Listing all of the various sports into the same color-coded tiers as counties for reopening also gives the leaders of the CIF and its sections a blueprint of how to perhaps move forward. It was reported on Tuesday by Darren Sabedra of the San Jose Mercury News that the 10 section commissioners were going to meet later that day to talk about next steps. Darren’s analysis was that in order to give the most kids in the most sports the ability to play during this school year that the CIF should completely rework its current calendar to more closely align itself with the new guidelines. It may be strange to have golf, cross country and tennis going first, for example, but those are sports than can be done even when counties are still in the purple tier. After that CIF section commissioners meeting, it was reported by several media sources that there wouldn’t be any major changes to the calendar until the CDPH looks at how everything stands on January 4. On Wednesday, based on reported interviews with CIF executive director Ron Nocetti, the CIF’s focus will be to continue to work with state officials to look for sports to be moved into the red tier instead of orange or yellow.
The sports of baseball and softball were listed in the red tier by the CDPH, which would obviously be easier to reach than other sports listed in orange or yellow. So assuming that by late March that the numbers of cases and hospitalizations are indeed much lower, baseball and softball then may have a good shot at starting fairly close to when those teams are now scheduled to start practicing and playing. We can see spring sports schedules reduced by many weeks, however, if that means other sports like football and basketball can be completed at all with reduced schedules.
Boys and girls basketball (along with indoor volleyball) were listed in the yellow tier by the CDPH, which may require further pleas from school leaders or increased rules (temperature checks at the door, for example) so that those sports could proceed in the red tier. We saw one tweet that quoted Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth girls basketball coach Alycia Komaki with her wondering if there would be a basketball season at all. The CIF and CIF sections will do their best so that doesn’t happen but will need to get state to go along with those sports being moved into a different tier than yellow.
Athletic directors, coaches, CIF section administrators and CIF state administrators are not giving up on saving educational athletics for the current school year. They’ll be flexible and will have the best interests for as many student-athletes in as many sports as they continue to plan calendars and schedules for the upcoming weeks.