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Return of high school sports gives students sense of normalcy

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Sebastián Abdon Ibarra
LV Life Editor

It was an afternoon baseball game at Claremont High School in late March. Looking around and taking in the scene,  you would not think this was only the third game hosted on campus since the pandemic halted almost every aspect of American life – schools most strikingly. With a crowd of roughly 40 watching and the athletes on the field,  nothing seemed  too out of the ordinary, besides the masks on everyone except the players – and deliberate spacing between groups of spectators. 

On March 29 the Claremont High School baseball team played a home game against Montclair High School. On the field all coaches from both teams wore masks. The players did not wear masks. Mask-wearing in the dugouts was inconsistent. 

Stay-at-home-orders and COVID restrictions across the state and nation, which had shuddered  almost all school activity in California for nearly a year prior to this afternoon game, meant sports were also suspended for months on end. Young people were stuck inside their homes doing online school and missing their teams, workouts and sports they loved.

“Particularly during quarantine there (was) not much else to do, and I wanted to see my friends again,” said Lauren Latts-Priest, sophomore basketball player at Claremont High School. “You really form a bond with your team. You can exercise alone, which some people are good at doing and some people aren’t, and those who aren’t really struggled staying in shape during quarantine.” 

The CHS basketball teams with others began practice again in February, a couple of months sooner than students were back in the classroom part-time in mid-April.

Mike Collins, athletic director at Claremont High School, said he is a believer in the positive impact of sports on young people.

“The value of it during this time is just incredible because people have been locked up and isolated for so long,” Collins said. “This is a chance to get back to normalcy, to exercise and to get back into shape, because we know how much exercise does for you both mentally and physically. A lot of our students were getting very depressed being inside and not being able to socialize (and) see their teammates or friends so I think it’s just huge.”

The benefits to teens of participating in varsity sports in high school are many. According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association report “The Benefits of High School and Youth Sports,” high schoolers who participate in sports are far less likely to drop out of school, and 15% more likely to attend college. According to the 2021 report, athletics help teens to develop life skills such as confidence, leadership, self-respect, setting goals and managing their time. They also have a better appreciation for diversity and a more developed sense of morality, the report finds.  Those who participate in high school sports and remain physically active are one-tenth less likely to experience obesity, they have lower incidences of heart disease, stroke and cancer, and they face lower healthcare costs in their lifetimes, the report finds. 

Collins said some of the outdoor and non-contact sports teams including cross country, swimming, tennis and golf, returned to practicing in November of last year. 

Cross country was the first sport that the California Interscholastic Federation, southern section, allowed to compete. 

On Feb. 18 the California Department of Health announced that competition for outdoor youth sports would be permitted as long as COVID case rates by county remained below 14 per 100,000 and specific safety precautions were taken. 

Michelle Okayama, athletic director at Bonita High School in La Verne, said that as of March 15 all sports were back in session at Bonita, though like Claremont, Bonita students did not return to the classroom until April. 

At both schools, indoor and contact sports, such as wrestling, basketball and volleyball have started to compete recently.

Parents of high school athletes are also relieved that sports have returned.

“Team sports are so great,” said Johanna Smith, whose 11th-grade daughter plays water polo. “They give kids a chance to be leaders, and to work together and learn what teamwork is. Just the health part being out there and exercising is great.” 

To date, widespread vaccination, with safety precautions, have brought the Los Angeles County COVID rate to between two and three new cases per 100,000, and life has followed sports in a slow return to normal.

But the work of bringing sports back was slow and measured with a lot of processes and procedures to be sure student athletes were safe, said the Claremont and Bonita athletic directors.

Conditioning started outside only at first. All sports were  initially limited to conditioning as they couldn’t use any equipment early in the year. While athletes were conditioning they were permitted to remove their masks, but when it was over the mask went back on. 

By February, Okayama said, COVID cases had dropped enough so that athletes could meet and practice outdoors. Depending on COVID cases in the county – if they went above 7 per 100,000 cases – then football and water polo players had to be tested regularly.  

Athletes also had to complete COVID-19 questionnaire, their temperatures were taken and recorded every day, they had to wear masks when not competing, and they had to socially distance by six feet when not on the field of play. 

By March 15, Okayama said, two household member guests were allowed to watch swim meets. For football four household members were allowed to watch, as the stadium can accommodate more people while still allowing for social distance. All spectators had to be on a list and check in. 

Collins said on March 16 Claremont’s policy on spectators was similar – immediate family only. 

After the months-long shut down, Bonita brought fall and winter sports, as well as spring sports back in February. Recently because of waning COVID numbers, they’ve all begun competing, which has been challenging, with boys and girls soccer, track and football and other sports all going on at the same time, instead of spread out across seasons.  

Okayama said it has been challenging getting games and practices in when every sport has something going on, while still abiding by COVID safety protocols.

Okayama said that in the case of a positive test, they go back to every athlete that was a part of that practice or game, and would shut down the practice. If the positive test was a result of a game, the other school’s athletic director would also be contacted and contact tracing is reviewed. 

Collins said school nurses and the health department at Claremont High School have a role in Claremont’s COVID protocols. If an athlete tests positive, the athletic trainer is notified who then tells the nurses. Nurses contact the family, contact trace, and the whole team is shut down in the case of a positive test. 

Latts-Priest said she has felt safe playing and practicing basketball. Since they first started back, the team was split into groups, they social distanced, and wore masks the whole time. 

Smith likewise said parents and the high school sports community worked together to facilitate getting sports back up and running.

 “I was very invested in making sure the girls could get back in the water sometime,” Smith said. “But safely so we were being very prudent about it. We both wanted her to be able to work out, exercise and practice and be with her friends, but not at the expense of her health,” Smith said. 

Both Bonita and Claremont have continued to hold competitions for their various athletic programs. There are still many scheduled throughout the month of May for Bearcat and Wolfpack athletics.

Sebastián Abdon Ibarra can be reached at sebastian.ibarra@laverne.edu.

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