Local student athletes are eager to hit courts and tracks next month when the Humboldt-Del Norte League cross country and basketball seasons are scheduled to start. But as student athletes have known since sports were canceled last spring, nothing is normal these days — especially sports, given all the physical contact and heavy breathing that tends to accompany them. Getting to play is contingent on permission from the California Department of Public Health, which has been sort of noncommittal lately regarding athletics. Because the CDPH hasn’t green-lighted games or released accompanying safety guidelines, local athletes and coaches are engaged in a waiting game more than anything else.
A lot of people are frustrated with the stagnant status of sports in California, especially given that some neighboring states are in the clear to play. “We’re just waiting. Everybody’s waiting,” Mike Benbow, the athletic director at Fortuna High School, told the Outpost recently. “We are like on pins and needles wanting some sort of information, and the state’s been quiet and it hasn’t said anything. High school sports are very very low on their agenda.”
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly addressed school sports briefly during a COVID update on Tuesday. “We are, and I said it before, close. These are not easy guidances to put together. There’s not just the competition issue, but there’s the conditioning issue,” Ghaly said, adding that traveling for games would be risky for entire communities. “Soon, but not quite today, that guidance will be out.” Ghaly said he’s heard from “close to thousands” of concerned parents and coaches, and is interested in releasing guidelines soon.
To be clear, it’s games specifically that the state hasn’t yet OK’d. The most recent sports-related guidance released by the California Department of Public Health is from August, and although it prohibits all indoor and outdoor sporting events (unless players are restricted to a stable cohort and can maintain six-foot distance from each other at all times), conditioning and training is permitted, provided social distancing is possible and enforced. Those guidelines also ask that equipment is disinfected between each student if shared, and masks are worn at all times unless it’s an outdoor high-exertion activity.
A few local schools are conditioning under those guidelines. At Fortuna High, student athletes are conditioning in basketball, soccer and cross country. But for most sports, it’s not at all like practice. Basketball conditioning, for instance, is just a few students, masked and socially distanced, shooting their own ball at their own hoop. At Fortuna High, which is offering in-person instruction to students who opt in, only students who are attending in-person are allowed to participate in conditioning.
“If you’re worried about COVID, which you know is a real thing and it’s scary and everything else, but the numbers are super low for the [high school] age group,” Benbow said. “I believe that if you’re going to compete with sports, I mean that’s going to put you more at risk than being in a classroom, and the classroom comes first.” Benbow said he hasn’t heard any COVID-related concerns from parents or students in terms of sports.
The road to approving games trickles down from state to local agencies and bounces between health and athletic boards. If and when California approves participation in school sports, the Humboldt County Department of Health will need to sign off too before schools can move ahead with practices and games. Meanwhile, the clearance will also wind through California’s athletics hierarchy, beginning with the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports in California and unilaterally cancelled school sports this fall. The CIF rules over many sections — in our case, the North Coast Section — which oversee individual leagues that are responsible for organizing calendars and some protocols. Here, the Humboldt-Del Norte League established their calendar and protocols for COVID-altered sports months ago. Their plan outlines a four-phase approach for returning to play, which begins with distanced conditioning in phase one and ends with full athletic participation in phase four, with exceptions for high-risk students.
Jack Lakin, HDNL commissioner, has been told that the California Interscholastic Federation and California Department of Public Health have discussed the framework for state-wide sports guidelines, and might even have a protocol document prepared. Even if those guidelines do exist, no one has seen them. Lakin speculated that California probably isn’t releasing guidelines because of the state’s tier system, in which Humboldt is currently one of only six counties in the “minimal” spread tier, while Del Norte is in the “moderate” tier. Even though spread risk might be relatively low here, it’s higher in other parts of California, and Lakin guessed that the state is wary of allowing sports in counties with higher spread. Just in the last two weeks, cases in California have increased by 38 percent.
“With that significant change the last 14 days, you can see why the state would be hesitant to put out any guidelines [for the resumption of high school sports],” Lakin said. “Two weeks ago, there was a belief that the CDPH was going to make an announcement last week. And then every day that goes by that doesn’t happen indicates that they’re having reservations about doing that.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District announced a couple of weeks ago that their first seasons, which were scheduled to kick off in December, will be postponed until at least January, even if the state does give that area clearance. Lakin took that decision as an indication that sports won’t be opening any time soon, regardless of location.
If California does give clearance, Lakin assumes that there would be limitations based on the tier system. “My guess would be that what tier a county is in might dictate what sports they’re able to offer, whether it be low-risk or high-risk on that continuum [of high- to low-contact sports].” Lakin supposes that the state might give clearance to counties in the minimal and and moderate tiers only, which would be encouraging news for HDNL athletes.
The HDNL calendar, which is divided into three eight- or nine-week seasons, deviates from the general North Coast Section model, which has allotted two seasons rather than three. For HDNL-participating teams, season one will include basketball and cross country, season two will include football, volleyball and soccer and the last season will include baseball, softball, tennis, golf, and track and field.
The three-season calendar will allow multi-sport student athletes to participate in more sports if they want to. Schedules with other leagues won’t match up for the first two seasons, and so games will be limited to inter-league contests only, but that’s a good thing — it will decrease virus spread risk and will reduce travel costs, given already-tight budgets. For the final and busiest season, teams might get to venture out of the league for North Coast Section spring championships, if all schools and local health agencies agree. The HDNL also specified with their plans that if a sport must stop mid-season due to health concerns, it cannot restart again.
But all of this rides on the assumption that the CDPH will approve California sports at all, and the HDNL will be forced to postpone or cancel the first season if the CDPH doesn’t send updates soon. Lakin said that there’s “no clear answer” to how the HDNL would adapt if the cross country and basketball seasons can’t start as planned. There are a few factors that would go into those plans, Lakin said, including whether leagues are provided with any kind of tentative timeline, and if certain, riskier sports aren’t approved.
A few school boards around the county have already committed to participating in the HDNL seasons, even though it’s unclear whether practices and games will be permitted come December 7, when the eight-week cross country and basketball seasons are meant to begin. In addition to Fortuna, Eureka City Schools, Hoopa Valley High School and the Northern Humboldt Union High School District (which includes Arcata and McKinleyville high schools) have voted to participate. Discussion about HDNL participation is on agendas for board meetings tonight at the Southern Humboldt Unified School District and Ferndale Unified School District.
In addition to sports themselves being totally uprooted by COVID, the festivities that surround them have to be reimagined, too. For instance, Dustin Dutra, McKinleyville High’s assistant principal, told the NoHum board on Tuesday night that the district plans to livestream games so that fans don’t miss out.
Missing out is a big concern weighing on Humboldt’s coaches. “We’re just hoping that we get some seasons under [students’] belts, and our seniors now, we hope they get an experience,” Benbow said, adding that athletics help teens develop skills in teamwork and positive attitudes towards competition. “The bottom line is to be together and to do the things they love to do, like play sports.”
Specifics, at this point, are impossible to nail down. “That fits the theme for living in the age of COVID,” Lakin said over the phone. “Uncertainty has affected every aspect of our lives. And the high school athletics are no different.”