With COVID on the rise, Los Altos High athletes allege lax safety protocol in sports cohorts

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Amid a rising county coronavirus death toll, a handful of Los Altos High School athletes have alleged lax enforcement of safety protocol on the part of their coaches, and at times, flagrant violations of restrictions by their teammates.

The claims of lax conduct come from four athletes on two sports teams at Los Altos; three of the four originate from the boys volleyball team, while the other athlete spoke on the condition that the Post did not disclose her sport.

None of the athletes that spoke to Post have voiced their concerns with the school or district, and all requested anonymity. The volleyball coach said he has not witnessed any safety violations, and at the moment, the team is not practicing.

In investigating the allegations, the Post spoke to over a dozen sources across the Mountain View–Los Altos School District, hoping to reveal an honest picture of sports throughout the pandemic not only at Los Altos, but also the broader district.

This report is broken into six chapters — “volleyball allegations,” “a past complaint properly addressed,” “statistics and protocol,” “confidence from athletic directors,” “more lax behavior” and “mental health and trade-offs” — for ease of reading.

Editor’s note: The author of this story is an athlete at Los Altos High School.

VOLLEYBALL ALLEGATIONS

Three boys volleyball athletes described what they called an indifference to safety precautions on the part of their teammates since starting training in the summer, with similar behavior carrying on even after the cohort returned from a shutdown in late September due to an athlete testing positive for COVID-19.

“During our first training back, despite knowing one of the guys had contracted COVID, people seemed to be indifferent,” one of the athletes said. “We did footwork training and had to line up behind each other, and most of the people were just right next to each other and had masks off.”

The California Interscholastic Federation — which governs high school sports throughout the state — permits sports conditioning in the purple tier of coronavirus restrictions, which Santa Clara County has been in since November of last year.

CIF guidelines do allow athletes to remove masks while engaged in strenuous exercise, but the rules mandate that athletes at least wear masks when waiting in line. 

And, regardless of the intensity of exercise, athletes are required to maintain a 6-foot distance at all times.

Another volleyball athlete confirmed what the first said, adding that part of the problem may have been a lack of adequate training space.

“On one hand, it was kind of the school’s fault for having like three different sports teams sharing the same field,” he said. “Space just wasn’t great … and yeah obviously my fellow teammates were just violating the safety precautions.”

But the two athletes claimed even more than social distancing or mask violations.

“Some kids were even sharing water and stuff,” the first said. “I’d seen them sharing water even before someone had contracted [the coronavirus], but it was more concerning that they were doing it even after.”

A third member of the boys team said that throughout the team’s practices, he observed a good-faith effort from coaches to enforce guidelines. However, he did agree with the first two athletes that social distancing was lax, adding that distance violations often occurred before and after practices; coaches were still present and observing the team at those times, but were only strict about social distancing once the actual conditioning began, he said. 

He added that he never observed teammates sharing water, and that many of the safety violations could be attributed to athletes and not the coaches themselves.

Two members of the varsity girls volleyball team said that while their teammates could’ve taken safety precautions more seriously, they never witnessed outright violations by their fellow athletes. They made clear that they wouldn’t know anything about the boys cohort.

The head volleyball coach, Peter Kim, said that he’s never observed athletes sharing water, and that for the most part, his cohorts have done a “good job” of following CIF safety guidelines.

Those guidelines include temperature checks and symptom questioning at the start of practices; athletes wearing masks to and from practice; conditioning being done in stable cohorts; and members of the cohort maintaining a 6-foot distance at all times. He added that he provides hand sanitizers and wipes for athletes at practice.

“Kids tend to come together when they’re speaking so you have to constantly remind them about socially distancing, but I haven’t seen anybody sharing water or not wearing a mask,” Kim said. 

When asked, Kim condemned the flagrant nature of the violation.

“They shouldn’t be doing that,” he said. “I don’t know? Kick him out? It’s just I haven’t seen that. … I mean, you can’t share water bottles. That’s something that inherently, right now, you shouldn’t do.”

Two of the boys said they stopped attending practices after observing unsafe behavior even after a teammate tested positive, citing discomfort with the laid-back approach on the part of their teammates as well as the fact that they could do the conditioning on their own.

Neither voiced their concerns to anybody other than some select teammates and their parents.

“I didn’t bring up anything, to be honest, although I could have,” one of the athletes said. “I can’t say for sure so this could be very wrong, but based on how indifferent [Kim] had stayed to us being so close, I think he would have listened to my concerns and tried to make a small effort to fix them, but I don’t think it’d be very effective.”

Kim said that he’d encourage any athletes at Los Altos to bring potential safety concerns to their coaches or the athletic director, noting that participation in sports cohorts is optional. The athletes said that at the time, it didn’t occur to them to bring concerns to Kim.

At the moment, although permitted by the school, Kim isn’t running volleyball practices because of scheduling conflicts.

A PAST COMPLAINT PROPERLY ADDRESSED

Despite not bringing their concerns to their coach regarding lax protocol, the athletes noted that Athletic Director Michelle Noeth had properly addressed a previous concern from parents.

When the cohort started practicing in the summer, the team was allowed to play with balls and nets out on the field for the first practice, which conflicts with CIF guidelines baring shared equipment. 

That endeavor was short-lived, since following the first practice, a number of the cohort’s parents — among them, the father of one of the three athletes alleging lax protocol — contacted school administration complaining about the safety risks posed by sharing equipment. 

Immediately following the parents’ complaints, training was relegated to strictly conditioning, and actual volleyball play was banned.

STATISTICS AND PROTOCOL

Los Altos’s athletic director, Noeth, declined to provide the number of Los Altos athletics cohorts shut down due to an athlete contracting the virus, instead referring the Post to Principal Wynne Satterwhite, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment at the time of publication.

In comparison, Mountain View Athletic Director Shelley Smith said that only one Mountain View athlete has reported a positive coronavirus case, although it was found to be attributable to activity outside of athletics and resulted in no internal spread.

The district’s coronavirus dashboard states that since July 1, nine students and five staff members in the district have reported a positive test for the coronavirus. 

Cases reported on the dashboard come from both athletic and academic cohorts at all the district’s sites.

Associate Superintendent of Personnel Services Leyla Benson — who currently serves as the district’s “COVID designee,” communicating with the county information regarding positive cases, procedure and contact tracing — said that the district is not authorized to share the breakdown of those 14 cases.

In an email to the Post, however, Benson disclosed information regarding internal spread.

“The county health department did share that they found cases of potential spread related to athletics and our cohorts,” Benson wrote. “As far as I am aware, third party involvement could not be definitively ruled out as a factor.”

Later, over the phone, Benson clarified that county contact tracers don’t necessarily share all their findings with her.

“We would be made aware if somehow in our procedures we were not doing things correctly — if we were to have pervasive spread or things that we were doing that were causing spread,” she said.

Benson said that her understanding is that in most, if not all cases there was no determined internal spread; and, even if there was, it would’ve been in very few circumstances.

According to county protocol, the district is required to report any positive tests to the county within four hours of receiving the report. Generally, cohorts are shut down immediately after the district learns of a positive test, and close contact emails are sent out informing families of the case within the cohort.

Benson said that the county has commended the district for doing an “excellent” job of following protocol exactly as written out.

She did add that originally, the county was more involved in helping school districts manage protocol, but after months of implementation, the district is largely left to execute procedures itself.

“If they perceive now that something is highly unusual, if there seems to be a spread or some kind of violation or something dramatic — knock on wood that’s not us — then they would step back in more,” she said. “But if you seem to be following procedures, they are now providing districts just the guidance, but not taking you through each step in the same manner.”

The Post did not speak to Benson on the record after learning of the allegations of safety violations.

CONFIDENCE FROM ATHLETIC DIRECTORS

Noeth, for her part, expressed a high degree of confidence that athletes are following guidelines in an interview prior to the Post learning of volleyball players’ allegations.

“We have some coaches that are really trying to do everything they can to take it seriously, and to try to enforce rules,” the athletic director said. “I feel like there’s confidence in our coaches to take this on … and it’s optional, so they don’t have to do this.”

At the moment, fall season sports are permitted to condition in cohorts of up to 15 athletes. Contact and shared equipment are prohibited.

Responding to an email inquiry regarding the specific allegations of lax protocol, Noeth said that she hadn’t heard the players’ concerns in the past, and would therefore not have been able to address them.

She did, however, indicate that she intends to look into the matter, and expressed confidence that Los Altos coaches act with the best intentions.

In the first interview, she said that she was not aware of any cohorts having difficulty following guidelines in the past, but did concede that much of that comes down to her trusting athletes and coaches.

“I’m not at every practice, right?” she said. “And I’m not standing at the parking lot monitoring people coming on and off campus. So it becomes very tricky that I have to trust that people are actually doing what they’re supposed to do.”

When asked for the number and severity of community complaints, Noeth directed the Post to the principal — who, as with statistics regarding positive cases, has not responded to multiple inquiries at the time of publication.

However, Noeth did later indicate that the school has received comments regarding off-campus activity. 

Cross country is the only sport that currently trains off campus.

“It’s nothing to do with what’s happening on campus, that I’ve heard about,” she said. “So if you can’t identify which school those students are associated with, you just complain to all [the local] schools, so really then it becomes like an investigation process of narrowing it down, ‘Hey, were our athletes around this place around this time?’ Anything that I’ve heard about hasn’t been about what we’re doing on our facilities.”

Mountain View’s athletic director, Smith, said that he’s aware of two to three complaints from the community regarding Mountain View athletics, all of which were due to community members not being aware of CIF guidelines — specifically, they may not have understood that guidelines allow athletes to remove masks during strenuous exercise.

Smith, who’s also Mountain View’s head varsity football coach, said that he’s not aware of any serious complaints from the community. 

“Being in a cohort with our conditioning and all the protocols is probably one of the safer areas you can be,” Smith said. “We have concern when our kids leave us — if they go out and if they want to visit friends — we kind of lose control at that point and there’s nothing that we can do.”

In arguing the relative safety of Mountain View sports, Smith also cited the fact that while cases in the broader county may be particularly bad, coronavirus transmission in Mountain View and Los Altos is lower than in other parts of the county.

He did add that to his knowledge, Los Altos may have had more difficulty managing its sports cohorts than Mountain View.

“Los Altos, they really took advantage of being able to get out there and they had a lot more athletes, so it’s a lot tougher to control, just sheer numbers,” Smith said.

Both Smith and Noeth estimated that at the moment, around 100 athletes at their schools are participating in cohorts.

The two athletic directors had slightly differing responses when asked what they’d do if they found that cohorts were violating safety guidelines.

“We’d shut it down right away,” Smith said. “And even if we speculate that we weren’t following the guidelines, we’d shut it down until we did an investigation.”

“It goes back to doing the research,” Noeth said. “I would look for the facts. Are there things that are factual that we need to make adjustments to? Is it something where we need to shut down the cohort because we’re not able to provide the necessary measures we need to provide?”

From the district side, Benson said that if the cohorts were practicing at the time she received the inquiry, the district would immediately put it on pause, investigate procedures followed and implement quarantine protocol. 

But that process looks different when dealing with allegations of misconduct months in the past.

“It’s less immediate in the shutting down of the cohort and whatever it may be, but rather, making sure that all of our procedures are in place and that they’ve been followed with fidelity,” Benson said.

MORE LAX BEHAVIOR

Another Los Altos student — a varsity athlete who spoke on the condition that her sport not be shared — admitted to lax protocol on the part of her coach and teammates, but also herself.

“I went to the first day of the new cohort, and [my coach] forgot to ask for peoples’ temperature, but she was like ‘Oh it’s okay I’m sure you guys took it,’” she said, speaking of the return to sports on Jan. 6 following the November shut down. “When we [work out] together, of course we try to stay 6 feet apart but that doesn’t really happen.”

She said that it’s her impression that there’s a genuine effort on the part of her coach to enforce safety precautions, but her coach may not be willing to be particularly “authoritative.”

“Does she always enforce the rules to the max? ” she said. “No. Because I think she wants to be nice to everyone.”

The athlete said that her parents might not be aware of the exact nature of the cohort, but even if they were to find out about lax safety protocol, she’s relatively confident that they wouldn’t be the ones to ask her to stop participating.

However, the athlete also admitted that she herself engages in unsafe behavior at sports practice. And, more than that, she’s part of a “social bubble” with a handful of her friends whom she sees regularly.

Under the county’s current stay-at-home order, “social bubbles” are prohibited, which she acknowledged.

“I really don’t want to be part of that group that’s like ‘Oh they’re the ones who aren’t abiding by the rules,’” she said, when asked what she makes of the fact that she could potentially spread the virus and put lives at risk. “I mean I don’t know, that’s a really hard question. I don’t like the implications of it.”

She said that her parents are aware that both she and her sibling see their friends in person — without wearing masks or social distancing — and that their family has mutually agreed that seeing friends despite a restrictive stay-at-home order is ultimately best.

“Does [the pandemic] scare me?” she said, speaking about continuing to train despite unsafe protocol. “I think there’s definitely a risk with so many people and us not always being 6 feet apart, but I feel like there’s a risk everywhere you go. … It’s not safe completely, but I also would rather go to the practice sometimes and just try to pretend like it’s normal and not worry about it.”

The athlete added that she sees sports as a large part of the “high school experience,” and that she enjoys being able to interact with people who aren’t in her friend group.

She did note that she’s aware of the drawback of “possibly endangering” her family or spreading the virus to her friends. There are always positives and negatives, she said.

“Everyone is suffering and that’s 100% caused by people not being cautious enough,” she said. “Honestly, I guess I am [part of that group]. I never really thought of myself as one of those evil people who aren’t following the rules.”

She said that she’s struggled through mental health issues through the pandemic and does see the risks of her social bubble and participation in sports, but for her personally, she believes the benefits outweigh any downsides.

When asked at what point she’d cease participating in sports and her social bubble, she said that’d be if she knew a “friend of a friend” or a “friend of a friend of a friend” who contracted the virus.

None of her friends have ever tested positive for the coronavirus, despite frequently getting tested.

“Do I feel 100% good about it?” she said. “No, of course not. But I mean, I’m not gonna not go to practice if I feel like going because I’m going to wear my mask and take my temperature. … At the end of the day, no regrets; you’ve just gotta live your life and you’ve just gotta do the best you can.”

The athlete has not voiced concerns with her coach or the school, and did not indicate changing her behavior in the near future.

MENTAL HEALTH AND TRADE-OFFS

Most, if not all of the sources that the Post spoke to advocating for sports cited mental health as the most important reason to continue playing despite the pandemic. 

Mountain View senior Ethan Stone, one of the captains of the school cross country team, said that he’s been organizing informal practices for his team since June for precisely that reason.

 “There’s been some really hard days for me, but every time I go to cross country I come back happier,” he said. “It’s just so good to see people and talk to them in real life — Zoom can’t replace that at all.”

Stone’s coach relocated to a home in Oregon when the pandemic hit, and thus, the team has had no official practices during the pandemic. Smith acknowledged that he’s aware of the informal cross country practices.

Stone said that all athletes wear masks while congregating before and after practice as well as during warmups. Once they start running, the team breaks off into packs of around five runners, and athletes remove their masks.

The practices, however, may not be perfect.

“Yes, we have some trouble,” Stone said when asked if runners maintain 6 feet of distance during their runs. “There are challenges. We can’t make everything perfect.”

According to Stone — whose informal practices begin at Lincoln Park in Los Altos, with runs going through Los Altos Hills — he and his fellow runners often get “dirty looks” while out on the trails.

Apparently, he’s been yelled at by an older woman near the Los Altos Hills town hall, off of Fremont Road; she told him and his teammates to put on their masks, using a number of expletives.

“I do realize that there are differing levels of comfort,” Stone said. “Those people that are yelling at us do have a very different level of comfort. And they mean it with the best intentions; they want to keep their community and keep everybody safe. And even though their language might not be the kindest, it’s meant in the best way.”

Stone cited statistics — in fact, the same ones that Smith brought up regarding lower case counts in Mountain View and Los Altos — when asked if he thought that the woman who yelled at him may have been justified in her perception that he and his teammates were endangering the community.

“Even though people are very worried about this, … where we live, it’s really not as bad as people think,” he said.

According to county data, Los Altos has 1,749 cumulative coronavirus cases per 100,000 in the population, Mountain View has 2,908 and Los Altos Hills has 1,949. 

Averaging the same statistic for all cities in the county yields 3,396 per 100,000 in the population.

When asked what he thought of the fact that easing off of restrictions in areas with lower cases rates could very well lead to a spike in numbers, Stone cited a statistic that he said shows that more “life years” — presumably age at death subtracted from the average lifespan — have been lost by teens in the pandemic than in the older population. The reason for that is an uptick in teen suicide, he said.

The Post was unable to independently verify the “life years” statistic, but experts generally agree that young adults have been among one of the hardest-hit demographics in the United States in terms of mental health issues due to the pandemic. 

“When I hear these people I think they don’t understand the bigger concept … so I’d explain how we’re trying to keep safe, and I’d try to explain that we’re doing this for our mental health,” Stone said, when asked what he’d say to the woman who yelled at him.

He emphasized that he “totally understands” if any of his teammates are uncomfortable with practicing, saying that he knows that not everybody will have the same level of comfort as him. 

Stone also said that he’s had conversations with his coach about the informal practices, and that his coach is “all for it,” but warns them to take the necessary precautions.

He did, however, again acknowledge the potential downsides.

“I see it definitely as a tradeoff,” Stone said. “There are definitely risks. I mean it’s 10–15 people gathering, right?” 

Noeth said that she’s well aware of that same tradeoff.

“Right now, the position that I’m in is a very challenging one,” she said. “Because you have parents that really want their students to be a part of sports … Then you have the flip side where you have parents that are not comfortable, you have athletes that are not comfortable and you have coaches that are not comfortable. It’s really trying to find that balance.”

She said that Los Altos coaches have shared with her that athletes have reported higher levels of motivation after returning to sports, and that she hopes to continue to provide Los Altos athletes the chance to play sports in the pandemic.

Smith cited the fact that the virus poses a lower risk to high schoolers than it does to the adult population in arguing that some of the risks are worth it.

He did, however, concede that guidelines can be hard to enforce at times, but said that he ultimately has confidence in his coaches and athletes to abide by the rules.

“It’s not easy — it’s not natural,” Smith said. “None of the distancing requirements are natural, especially when you’re trying to do any kind of conditioning. … I mean just casually walking over and grabbing some water, we’re on these guys constantly.”

Smith also noted that the conditioning that MVLA athletes are partaking in is allowed by what he called one of the most cautious health departments in the nation.

“We are offering — I can’t say completely — but a very safe environment, and it’s providing a lot of wellness to our young people right now who are struggling with distance learning,” Smith said. “You should see these guys, when they saw each other for the first time when we were able to get out there, the look on their faces was just a great thing to see. They just lit up, they were back to normal. And when we had to shut it down, the look on their faces, it tore me apart.”

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