Athletes, coaches, and families hoping for a return of football and many other high school sports got a huge boost on Friday with the release of new youth sports guidelines from the California Department of Public Health. In keeping with recent decisions by the state to remove “tier” considerations for the re-opening elementary schools in favor of a more attainable “case rate” goal, the guidelines clear the way for football, baseball, softball, soccer, water polo, cheerleading, and other outdoor sports to return.
Previously those sports needed counties to drop into the red or orange tier to begin practice and competition–an unattainable goal for Los Angeles County, which has not done so since the beginning of the pandemic. The new guidelines require that the adjusted case rate drop to 14 for those sports to begin. That hasn’t happened yet, but LA County (and Long Beach for purposes of determining sports’ status) was at 17.6 per 100,000 on Friday, and falling rapidly.
If LA County falls to 14 per 100,000 next week, as some health experts think it may, it would mean the almost immediate return of practices and games for all high school sports except for basketball, wrestling, volleyball, and badminton. That’s a major change considering that it was just last Wednesday that Long Beach hosted its first high school sporting event in 11 months.
“We’re still a little ways away, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” said Moore League secretary Lisa Ulmer. “We’re almost there. We know how valuable sports and competition is to these kids’ well-being, both socially and emotionally as well as physically. We’re just asking our community to continue to adhere to the guidelines to keep those numbers going in the right direction for the kids.”
It’s going to be a busy three and a half months for Ulmer and the local high school athletic directors, who will have to coordinate an enormously complicated return of a full year’s worth of sporting events, crammed into about a third of the school year. To give a sense of how quickly things could move, the CIF Southern Section released guidelines for high school football practice.
If a county moves into the acceptable case rate on Tuesday of the upcoming week, its high schools could hold enough practices to be playing football games on March 12, a schedule that would allow for a team to play six games.
The LBUSD has been one of Southern California’s most committed districts to sports and its student-athletes, allowing outdoor conditioning practices well before even some private powerhouses were, and Ulmer said the district will continue to advocate for its kids.
“We’ll continue to do everything we’re allowed to do,” she said. “We’re really excited about this new opportunity for our students, and we’ll have games going as soon as it’s safe by the 14 threshold and we’re allowed to by the Long Beach Health Department and our district.”
A number of hurdles and complications remain, aside from waiting with bated breath for the case rate to drop a few more points. The state guidelines “strongly encourage” weekly testing for student-athletes, and California governor Gavin Newsom has pledged to pay for that program statewide. It still leaves major questions about how to implement the logistics of the program, and it’s understandable that local jurisdictions would be wary about promised state support. The CDPH guidelines allowing for these returns were several months late, after weeks of Newsom stating that they were just days away, for example.
There’s also the question of getting the city’s athletes cleared, academically and medically. Anyone participating in a sanctioned high school sport has to have a 2.0 GPA and has to have received a physical. Grades have slipped across the state under distance learning, posing one challenge, and the city’s poorest neighborhoods continue to struggle with medical access.
“If there are any doctors who want to help with the return of sports, they could volunteer a couple of days from 2 to 6 p.m. at Jordan and Cabrillo, that would be huge,” said Ulmer. “Some of our students are struggling to get appointments for physicals and it’s slowing them down.”
Stay tuned for more updates next week about case rates and how the city’s high schools will go about bringing back high school sports.