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Benefield: Football returns in Santa Rosa amid questions about testing disparities

It was football, on a Tuesday, in April. But it was football.

For teams from Santa Rosa City Schools — Montgomery, Santa Rosa, Piner and Maria Carrillo — the yearlong wait to hit the field after an unprecedented pandemic upended everything was made more excruciating still by weeks of added waiting because of the district’s stricter-than-most coronavirus protocols.

But on Tuesday they played. Montgomery beat Santa Rosa 14-6 and Maria Carrillo defeated Piner 61-6. But it could be argued that the scores hardly mattered.

High school football has become, in some ways, a microcosm for a larger debate in the community about adherence to coronavirus guidance and who exactly is making the rules here.

The California Department of Public Health has advised that testing is no longer required for football players and coaches when adjusted case rates in a county drop below 7 per 100,000 residents. Sonoma County has been below that threshold for weeks.

Santa Rosa City Schools, unlike other programs that stopped when the county case rate dropped below 7, continued to test through this past weekend. That regimen garnered positive tests on four of the five football teams in the district and two weeks of canceled or rescheduled contests.

So while teams from four district high schools, plus Elsie Allen High (which is only fielding a junior varsity squad this year) were idle, other squads from different districts that had dropped testing protocols played on.

The disjointed and uneven adherence to guidance has caught the attention of county health officials.

“We have definitely been working really hard to standardize that,” county public health officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Monday. “We feel like at this point testing is what is going to prevent outbreaks, so absolutely more testing is going to be necessary.”

A meeting was scheduled Tuesday between county health officials and athletic and education representatives to push for “some level of consistency,” according to deputy county counsel Adam Radtke.

The meeting was called “to kind of go over recommendations for sports because we want to make sure they at least take into consideration the strong recommendation by the state ... that even though it’s not required, there should be some level of routine testing if they are competing or practicing,” he said Monday.

And while football is on the cusp of the end of its abbreviated season, indoor sports like basketball and volleyball are likely to rekindle the testing debate.

But in the end, much of the guidance is just that: Guidance. It’s not a rule. And that’s been a complaint among school officials for months, that when the word “guidance” is used there is too much room for interpretation, that it leaves school officials open for criticism, lawsuits or worse.

“Everybody is trying to figure it out and nobody is able to get any definitive information,” said Elizabeth Evans, district director for physical education and athletics for Santa Rosa City Schools. “It’s ‘This is highly encouraged, we highly encourage you to ...’ — everything is up to interpretation.”

And that interpretation opens the door to differences in how guidance is applied.

“The thing I’m learning through this whole process ... is no matter what the decision is, there are people on one side who applaud and are happy and grateful about what you are doing and there are people on the other side that are mad or unhappy,” Evans said.

The football testing program is not the first time Sonoma County’s largest district has drawn a harder line than other districts and schools in the county.

Santa Rosa City Schools campuses and facilities were closed to all teams and student-athletes for the better part of a year. While other schools opened outdoor courts or tracks, and in some cases gymnasiums and weight rooms, Santa Rosa officials told its coaches their players could condition but it had to be done off campus.

Such was the disparity that Santa Rosa asked North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing that its football teams not be scheduled to play any team outside of the district for fear that players, who hadn’t had the same access to training and conditioning programs, would get hurt.

With fewer teams to play, that left SRCS football teams idle with byes on March 19 when other schools celebrated the return of Friday night lights. They were thwarted again when positive results nixed contests between Maria Carrillo and Montgomery and Santa Rosa at Piner. Last week, games scheduled for Friday between Montgomery and Santa Rosa and Maria Carrillo with Piner were rescheduled to Tuesday after reported positive results.

In an effort to get at least three games in before the state-mandated season end date of April 17, officials rescheduled Friday’s games to Tuesday. Teams will next play on Monday night and the final games of the season will be on Saturday, April 17.

On Tuesday, those three games were the only things Santa Rosa High coach Roy Keegan wanted to talk about. He didn’t want to talk about testing or protocols or restrictions on how and when his team could work out. He just wanted to talk about taking the field against Montgomery Tuesday night.

“It was a long quarantine,” he said. “A lot of these kids have been working out and giving everything they’ve got to have an opportunity to play again. Whether it’s three games or 10, we are just happy to be out there.”

Enduring essentially the longest offseason in the history of prep football has been hard, according to Maria Carrillo senior Jack Sherman, but it’s reinforced a couple of things. First, he gets to play football one last time with friends he’s had since elementary school. And second, there is something about representing your school that can’t be overstated. And that’s been missing for student-athletes for a year now.

“I think it’s really important that we get to play on a school team and get to represent our school — having that spirit for once, that we really haven’t been able to play for in the last year,” he said.

Maria Carrillo senior Logan Kraut, who is signed to play at the University of Arizona next fall, said it’s felt for months like those in charge didn’t want the hassle of fielding competitions in a pandemic.

“I honestly think they didn’t want us to play and they didn’t want to have to deal with all this COVID stuff. Every other place is playing,” he said. “I think they took too much precaution.”

But in the end, after the waiting, after the thought that his senior season would never happen — only to have it pulled from the brink for three games — it’s worth it to Kraut. It’s all been worth it.

“I just really wanted to play with my friends for the last time.“

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

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