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.