Hope fades for fall high school sports as health wisdom prevails over COVID-19 skeptics

Last month, I was certain high school sports would play out in California this fall, even if in an abbreviated form.

I wasn’t naive. I was hopeful, as were the sea of coaches, administrators, parents and student-athletes I regularly spoke to.

I was encouraged because flattening the coronavirus curve meant to shutter schools, to social distance, to mask up, to wash hands vigorously as if was performing surgery. Everyone doing their part.

I was optimistic because sports, the band, theater arts — anything extracurricular — are a vital part of a campus and a community, especially football, the identifying action for fall Friday nights. I was encouraged in recent weeks while watching area schools engage in modified summer sports conditioning drills with the universal theme of “find a way.”

Now optimism has been dulled by the grim reality that COVID-19 is still dictating this pace.

The summer conditioning drills have largely been shut down across the region and state as virus numbers spike.

The California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for prep sports, will announce an outline of a sports schedule for the 2020-2021 academic year next Monday. It seems likely there will be few if any fall sports, and that sports such as football will be pushed to the winter or spring.

Why wouldn’t the CIF announce a decision weeks or days ago? To buy time. To see where the numbers are, to see what school districts are doing. That’s the best course of action in dealing with this pandemic — patience and action to be safe.

Issues more pressing than athletics have dominated the school scene of late.

A growing number of school districts have announced they will not start the academic year with on-campus instruction to quell the spike of the virus in those regions, including the two largest of the state in the Los Angeles and San Diego Unified. Those districts will offer a plan to return to in-person learning this coming academic year “as soon as public health conditions allow,” the districts wrote in a joint statement.

Closer to home, Folsom-Cordova decided Wednesday to start the school year online. Sacramento County schools will start online-only this year as well. Sacramento City Teachers Association President David FIsher said in a statement this week, “The pandemic spike makes beginning any in-person instruction on September 3 highly unlikely. When the two largest school districts in California acknowledge the enormous safety concerns of resuming in-person instruction our district leaders cannot ignore the need to develop and improve our ability to teach remotely.”

The Natomas Unified district in Sacramento announced Monday it would delay the start of the academic year by two weeks to implement more safety protocols.

And there’s this: How can a campus offer sports if it does not have on-campus instruction? It cannot. How can there not be sports if schools have on-campus classes? They should go hand-in-hand.

Some districts are going full speed ahead. The Orange County Board of Education approved a proposal that recommends opening schools this fall without the requirement of social distancing or masks. But this is not binding, just a recommendation, and any spike of the virus will surely scuttle those plans.

The CIF is monitoring all of the school district decisions. This is not a one-size-fits all dilemma. Some endorse on-campus instruction for the sake of their children’s experiences while others do not for health’s sake.

Are there options?

Should the CIF announce fall sports such as football and volleyball be moved to winter or spring, might private schools across the state create their own schedule and play in the fall? Private schools are not governed by school districts and can make their own decisions.

Could Bradshaw Christian, Capital Christian, Christian Brothers, Jesuit and St. Mary’s of Stockton band together, or those from the Bay Area, to form a football league? No one will go on the record to talk about this, but it has been discussed.

The Northern Section of the CIF stretches from Yuba and Sutter counties up to the Oregon border and includes the smallest high schools in the most-rural parts of the state. Could it be that some of those schools in towns with little or no COVID-19 numbers play football this fall while others in the state do not?

I would endorse the Northern Section doing so, the thinking of, “get any season in while you can.”

Said Winters High football coach/athletic director Daniel Ward, “I wish!”

He added, “But the virus is starting to hit small towns as well, a rise in cases everywhere. Colusa County has shut all sports down, and Sutter and Glenn County are among those now on the governor’s watch list.”

Ward continued, “I talk to our section commissioner Liz Kyle pretty regularly. My feeling is that the CIF will stick together whatever the decision ends up being by the CIF. I don’t see some sections playing and others not. Kids would be transferring all over the place to play. I just feel bad for the kids everywhere. I know how bad they want to get back out there.”

A winter football start date would work for most of the state, but not so much for Fall River or Lassen or Dunsmuir or Mount Shasta of the Northern Section. Those practices and games could include slush and snow.

East Nicolaus athletic director Neil Stinson of the Northern Section said, “I think it’s unlikely we start on time sports-wise. I could see a September or October football start if we had fall football. I doubt that a January season works for anyone north of Chico.“

He added, “Schools, families and communities need some normalcy in this time. How to do that safely is the million-dollar question.”

CIF decision not based on politics

No matter what the CIF decides, it will not be a universally popular decision.

Some will rant that the CIF will be overreaching if it announces fall sports such as football will move into the winter or spring, that it doesn’t have the best interest of student-athletes at heart, that mental health concerns will overwhelm COVID-19 concerns, arguing that the death rate among young people is microscopic.

Some will counter that the CIF and its 10 sections and the army of districts across the state have to continue to be cautious, that it is their business to keep students, teachers and coaches safe.

The CIF will not be influenced by politics or finances. It will not listen to President Trump’s urging that all schools open with full on-campus instruction this fall. It will listen to what health officials have to say. We all should.