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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 , 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.

Still more, Kitamura said she would allow student-athletes to participate — and compete — should league play get up and running, regardless of whether the district is still in distance learning and students are not back on campus.

"If the health department OKs it, I would like our students to participate, I really would, even if we are still in distance learning,“ she said. ”There are different things I have to make sure of, that I have to have in place to have that happen, but I’m willing to do it to get the kids out there.“

But excitement over the return to play for district coaches was immediately tempered by confusion over how some of the latest district rules can be adhered to. The latest version of district rules call for cohorts to be limited to 15 athletes, and coaches cannot move between cohorts or even coach multiple groups in shifts. For a team like football or cross-country, that could require between four and seven coaches — none of whom could work with anyone other than the 15 athletes in their group.

The plan also prohibits the use of any equipment — think footballs or agility ladders that lay flat on the ground — and requires a designated bathroom for each cohort that must be cleaned and sanitized after each cohort use.

’There will be risks’

The shift in stance comes as more parents call upon district officials to let kids practice, at least in some modified format. Beyond other high school programs, youth teams have been running practices in local parks for months.

“I think the public input was an important piece to it,” said Dean Haskins, athletic director at Montgomery High School and the lead AD for the district, said of return to play. “I think there was a realization that other schools were doing it and we were not.”

And the biggest player stepping into the arena means more eyes will be on protocols and whether teams are being vigilant.

“There will be risks,“ county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said of more teams practicing. ”That is just a trade-off that will exist. We have to be prepared to do contact (tracing), isolate cases. That is what we need to be prepared for.“

Santa Rosa City Schools officials said after coaches and trainers have been briefed on updated protocols and facilities have been cleaned of ash, the football, volleyball and cross-country teams will be allowed on campus to conduct modified and highly structured workouts.

Even as Santa Rosa teams return to conditioning workouts — replete with airtight schedules, ingress and egress protocols, sanitizing routines — there will likely still be grumbling that teams are already well behind the competition. Windsor has long been up and running, as have St. Vincent in Petaluma and Cardinal Newman High School.

As more and more teams and schools get back at it, it is already clear that the surfeit of seemingly ever-changing guidance and safety regulations are causing programs to function in different ways on different campuses.

While Windsor is reading the county health guidance regarding indoor workouts to mean that nothing can take place indoors, Cardinal Newman teams are working out in their gymnasium with doors open and fans whirring, said the Cardinals’ athletic director Jeff Nielson. On the flip side, Windsor has OK’d shared balls but is disinfecting throughout practice, while Cardinal Newman is instituting a one player-one ball rule.

Desire ’to do it right’

For Windsor athletic director Jamie Williams, crafting return to play guidelines for coaches and players has been painstaking — and well worth it.

“There was virtual collaboration with associations across the nation. It’s been amazing to listen to how people are handling it,” she said. “It just fired me up to take action and don’t just sit back and wait for things to happen.”

She developed a shared Google document with proposals and protocols, leaning heavily on area organizations that had successfully navigated return-to-play plans. She created schedules for teams that included staggered arrival times, mandated cohorts, rules for entering and exiting campus, and drafted — and then recrafted — a liabilty waiver for all families to sign.

The coaching staff has been vigilant, she said.

“They know what is at stake and they want to do it right,” she said. “They don’t want a repeat of spring 2020, they don’t want things shut down completely.“

They know what is at stake with COVID-19, but they know what is at stake for kids, too, Williams said. Students miss school but they miss the extracurriculars, too.

“I think that is what this pandemic unfortunately is taking away from our students — sports, music, ag, whatever it is. So if we are able to provide them with some opportunity and do it safely?” she said, her voice trailing off.

’Was that the right call?’

But doing it safely when rules and guidance change often is not an easy task. Many Northern California leagues not only have multiple school districts and their individual policies but also multiple counties in different stages of dealing with the coronavirus. The Vine Valley Athletic League has schools from Sonoma County (Casa Grande, Petaluma and Sonoma Valley) as well as Napa County (American Canyon, Justin-Siena, Napa and Vintage). Napa County is currently in the red tier of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, while Sonoma County is in the more-restrictive purple tier.

For Robert Pinoli, commissioner of the Coastal Mountain Conference that includes high schools from Cloverdale, Middletown. Tomales, Calistoga and Round Valley, the knot of changing rules and regulations is nearly impossible to untangle. His conference covers five counties — Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Napa and Marin — all with unique rules for the who, what, where and how of youth sports.

“Everybody is still trying to figure out what they can do and what they can’t do,” he said. “Schools are having a hard enough time trying to do this distance learning. It’s an interesting situation with not very many answers.”

Perhaps a bigger question for many still is: What’s it all for? What is the point of allowing teams to practice if the prospect of games and playoffs and championships remain so clouded by doubt.

Is it worth it?

The California Interscholastic Federation has condensed three seasons into two, with many fall sports pushed to a Dec. 7 start date. At that point, so called “summer rules” are gone and teams are allowed more time and flexibility in the hours they can spend on their sport, so long as county health guidelines permit.

But with more teams playing at the same time there will be space issues in gymnasiums and even on fields. Multisport athletes may have to choose between sports. Fans may be banned. It all may be moot if crowds and the close contact that come with competition are still prohibited or games themselves are forbidden.

"Our coaches are probably struggling more than the kids are in a lot of ways,“ St. Vincent athletic director Tony Keefer said of school teams that have continued to work out under the county guidelines. ”It’s hard to continue to motivate them with nothing really on the horizon.“

Keefer said watching teams work out looks nothing like it once did. No high fives, no huddles amid enforced distancing. With coronavirus transmission levels in Sonoma County that are the fifth highest in the state, some of even the most ardent sports supporters wonder if it’s worth it.

“There is a part of me that says ’Gosh, I hope we can get the kids playing again because kids need it,’ and part of me saying 'Look at what’s going on in the world and I don’t see how we can come back,’” Pinoli said. “Kids always want to start practicing and playing but you know it’s tough to make a call, and even when they do make the call, will it be the right one? If they say ’Let’s play’ and we end up getting a bunch of kids and coaches sick, was that the right call?”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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