County guidelines could spell disaster for high school sports competition

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY GIL RUBINSTEIN

Note: Santa Clara County has walked back its guidance mandating a 25-foot distance between athletics cohorts. Click here for the most recent updates.

Santa Clara County safety restrictions could thwart high school sports competitions set to begin in just over two weeks. 

County guidelines allow practice and conditioning within stable cohorts of athletes given 6-foot social distancing, but also dictate that separate cohorts must be kept at a 25-foot distance; that presents a challenge once local schools begin competition, when a handful of different cohorts from different schools look to compete against one another.

“[The county] just announced that athletics between schools will require 25’ of spacing,” wrote Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin in a tweet last night. “That sport doesn’t exist.”

The 25-foot clause — part of the county’s “mandatory directive for programs serving children or youth” — dates back to October of last year, but Palo Alto High School Athletic Director Nelson Gifford said he expected the county to lift the clause when the state ended the regional stay-at-home order on Jan. 25, and announced the youth sports competition could begin.

More than that, Nelson expressed frustration with the disconnect between the state and county.

“Everyone expected sports to be able to compete according to their tier designation as communicated by the California Department of Public Health,” he said. “This was a shock to everyone.”

Neighboring San Mateo county has no such restriction regarding a 25-foot distance between cohorts, and state guidance only dictates 6-foot social distancing between athletes.

Los Altos Athletic Director Michelle Noeth said that she was previously aware of how the 25-foot clause affected how athletics cohorts needed to be spaced around campus, but only just learned that it applies to the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s competitions slated to start on Feb. 15. 

According to Noeth, the county is set to hold a webinar for coaches and athletic directors tomorrow to clarify guidelines, which she hopes will give a “glimmer of hope of information.”

Noeth did, however, express optimism, suggesting ways that schools could hold competition even under the restrictions.

“In theory, I read it as swimming and diving and cross country can still do this,” she said. “They [can] run competitions by themselves and upload the results to determine who won the contests. … Just my thoughts of how to make it work.”

She added that the same could be done for track and field — set to begin in April — as well as golf, which may allow for more traditional competition that still satisfies the 25-foot requirement.

Gifford, for his part, noted that throughout the pandemic, he’s been inspired watching programs provide opportunities for students despite restrictive safety orders.

“We know COVID is serious and I have seen so many programs do everything with their limited resources to provide opportunities for their students,” Gifford said. “It’s been inspiring to see communities pull together and work with one another.”

But he again expressed frustration with the county.

“It’s been terrible,” he said. “Athletes, parents, coaches and the community are all distraught. … We were working in good faith believing we had the blueprint to return to play. Then in two days, the rules change and we are back to nowhere. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The county health department is set to release “clarifying guidance” later tonight, according to a spokesperson.

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