High school sports slowly returning in Sonoma County, but nothing looks quite the same
It’s hard to teach a volleyball player the proper way to dig when practices are not held on the shiny wooden floors of a gymnasium but on a grass patch in the middle of the quad.
Add to the list of challenges the temperature checks before workouts, the requirement to wear facial coverings that get hot and sweaty almost immediately, and then the frequent use of spray disinfectant on balls. But Windsor High School volleyball coach Christen Hamilton is not complaining. Not at all. Even when temperatures hit the upper 80s and 90s in September and scorched her outside practices, she was still enthusiastic and running training sessions because her players wanted to be there.
“They still showed up, they were still there,” she said. “They just love it. This is what brings a lot of them together.”
“Sports is so big in our community, not just in Windsor, but in Sonoma County in general,” she said. “It’s a big stress reliever.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sonoma County’s 68,000 kindergarten through 12th graders have been in online-only classes since March. With campus closures came the immediate end to entire spring sports seasons and a summer of uncertainty as school officials and coaches tried to navigate what teams can and cannot do.
That has left high school athletes, their coaches and school administrators in an extended period of sporting limbo. What activities are allowed, and what’s not? Who can practice, and who can’t? If an athlete’s rival down the road is working out, why can’t she?
North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing has been hearing those questions for what seems like forever, mainly from coaches, players and parents in districts that have not yet given their players the greenlight to work out.
Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest school district in Sonoma County with approximately 15,700 students, is among the last of area districts to give the go-ahead for teams to work out. Despite optimism at the school board’s Sept. 23 meeting about a swift return to sweating, teams are still on hold, in part because the district is still finalizing its safety protocols. The process also has been delayed by the Glass fire, which required schools to clean up outdoor facilities that were covered in ash.
The new target date for approved workouts for Santa Rosa City Schools teams is tentatively late this week or into the next , according to Elizabeth Evans, district director for physical education and athletics. And while that is a step in the right direction, according to Smith Billing, coaches, athletic directors and athletes are frustrated by the wait.
“They have been very stringent regarding (return to play rules) and it’s creating a lot of problems,“ she said. "I get a lot of calls.”
’Opportunity to connect kids’
The NBL, broken into two divisions, stretches across multiple school districts, meaning campuses just miles apart may have rules very different from each other, depending on school district policy regarding athletics and training. Rancho Cotate High in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District gave the all-clear to its volleyball, football and cross-country squads to start training last week, Ukiah High athletes are practicing outside, Healdsburg has student-athletes working out outside with no equipment, and Cardinal Newman, Windsor and St. Vincent have long been running conditioning workouts regularly.
El Molino and Analy from the West Sonoma County Union High School District were cleared to start, barring equipment. The Lions football team started last week in groups of 10 players.
But Santa Rosa City Schools, the biggest force in prep sports with the most teams and athletes of any district in the North Bay, has been on hold. And the wait has been long for many. Since schools shut for in-person classes in March, campuses — district fields, gyms, weight rooms — have been off limits for teams. Since July 31, all practices have been banned.
And those rules made Smith Billing’s phone ring.
Some of those calls reached the Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Trustees meeting Sept. 23 as parents spoke up during the public comment section about the need to provide an outlet for kids who haven’t had a normal day of school in more than six months.
“This is a stressful time and these kids need a sense of normalcy,” said Christine Carra, mom to a Maria Carrillo High School runner. “This is an opportunity to connect kids to their learning and each other and let them develop in a really important way.”
Superintendent Diann Kitamura concurred then and now.
“I agree 100% this is going to be an outlet for kids who are participating and maybe it’s going to bring out more kids to participate because they want to get outside and get going, which would be fantastic,” she said that night.