Opinion: The virus doesn’t care if you’re an athlete

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Palo Alto High School student-athletes huddle after a game with no masks or social distancing. With the end of the pandemic in sight, Palo Alto Unified School District has done little to spread awareness or enforce social distancing guidelines. “I think it’s a good idea [to socially distance], but I also think that it’s a really hard thing to implement,” sophomore Jonas Pao, who is a member of the boy’s varsity soccer team, said. “The players, the coaches, and even some of the fans might be resistant to it.”

Brennen Ho, Culture Editor and Webmaster

Palo Alto High School student-athletes huddle maskless after a game and with no social distancing. Some Paly student-athletes have raised concerns over the lack of covid guidelines and enforcement, but others seem less concerned. “A lot of people don’t put on a mask [after the game] so it can be dangerous,” said a member of the junior varsity football team who asked that his real name not be used. Photo: Brennen Ho

Armed with a bottle of hand sanitizer and masks, I didn’t think twice about covering a Palo Alto High School football game for The Paly Voice earlier this month because universal masking has — or at least I thought had — become commonplace. Instead, I was alarmed by crowds of unmasked people with little social distancing, both on the field and off. I felt especially concerned with the lack of social distancing on the sidelines, with unmasked players standing close together and cheering.

According to the California Interscholastic Federation’s guidelines for student-athletes during the pandemic, as well as the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines for youth and recreational sports, players who are not actively engaged in play, as well as all staff and spectators, should be masked at all times and maintain social distancing.

The real shock, however, came after the game ended and players huddled closely in a group to have a post-game debrief, as if begging to catch the coronavirus. I personally felt concerned for my safety approaching the unmasked players afterward to ask for interviews and I prayed that my double mask was sufficient to reduce the risk of transmission.

Although vaccines are now recently being more widely distributed, we must encourage discipline in following the safety guidelines to prevent a new surge and delay our full return to normal. Accordingly, the Palo Alto Unified School District ought to better enforce social distancing guidelines at sports events in accordance with CIF and CDPH guidelines.

In an April 6 article, the Washington Post reported that coronavirus infections among children have skyrocketed since March, representing around 18% of recent infections.

In a White House press briefing on April 5, doctor Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named sports as a cause of COVID-19 outbreaks among youth.

“We are learning that many outbreaks in young people are related to youth sports and extracurricular activities,” Walensky said.

When I reached out to players and members of the Paly sports community after the April 3 game, many were under the impression that PAUSD relied on the players to take initiative in social distancing with little guidance and no enforcement.

A member of the junior varsity football team, who asked not to be identified due to concerns about possible retribution from his teammates, explained that PAUSD was depending on the players to take charge.

“They’re kind of putting the responsibility on us as players and saying, if you get [the coronavirus], then the season ends, so don’t be stupid,” he said. “They could enforce more rules, but I mean, nothing’s happened yet.”

An unmasked referee at a recent Palo Alto High School football game. California Interscholastic Federation and California Department of Public Health guidelines state that staff should remain masked at all times. “I think it’s a good idea [to socially distance], but I also think that it’s a really hard thing to implement,” said sophomore Jonas Pao, a member of the boy’s varsity soccer team. “The players, the coaches, and even some of the fans might be resistant to it.” Photo: Brennen Ho

Sophomore Payton Anderson, a member of the girl’s varsity soccer team, said she had concerns with COVID-19 while playing her sport, and worried she may be placing her loved ones at risk.

“I especially felt concerned about the coronavirus while participating in my sport at the start of the season,” Anderson stated in a message to The Paly Voice. “I didn’t know what the person next to me was being exposed to. With family members who are at high risk, it really makes me anxious when other people are not following what is being asked. It makes me wonder how at risk I am, and thus to what extent I am putting my family in a vulnerable state.”

According to Anderson, these concerns were previously brought up before her team, but have had little impact.“I have voiced these concerns to my teammates and coach, but not much has come from it,” Anderson stated. “Many of us feel that this is a problem, but we all knew that our small complaints [about the lack of COVID-19 enforcement] were not worth much in the grand scheme of things.”

Nelson Gifford, Paly’s athletic director, stated in an email to The Paly Voice that he was not aware of any concerns from coaches or athletes.

“Coaches and athletes have demonstrated they are comfortable with the support and guidance the department has provided,” Gifford stated. “We are in constant communication with our coaches and work with them to address any concerns that they have. We are here to work with the students and staff to be as safe as possible.”

Sophomore Miya Whiteley, a member of the girl’s varsity soccer team, expressed concern that spectator limits were not being enforced.

“At the beginning of the season we were given these green tickets that were supposedly good for bringing up to four family members to a game, but I don’t think that is being enforced at all,” Whiteley stated.

Gifford stated that spectators are limited to immediate family, but didn’t explain how this rule is being enforced.

“Spectators are limited to immediate family and we require masks of anyone in attendance,” stated Gifford.

In my observations covering Paly sports events, namely a varsity and a junior varsity football game, as well as a boy’s varsity soccer game and a girl’s varsity soccer game, I have not noticed anyone being asked to present their tickets for entry. While attending as a spectator, I was never asked to present a ticket for entry, and was never approached by staff or asked to leave.

Anderson stated she wants PAUSD to do more to support student-athletes and coaches during the pandemic.

“I think PAUSD could put more time into educating and discussing with the athletic department on how important it is to enforce social distancing measures among athletes,” Anderson stated. “No coach has ever been put in this position, so it is PAUSD’s job to put in the time and effort to improve [social distancing] for the benefit of the entire student body.”

Additionally, the CDPH strongly encourages weekly testing for high-contact sports, however, most of the players I talked to said that there was no mandate for COVID-19 testing.

In an article by The Paly Voice, indoor sports returned on March 4 with a seperate set of guidelines, including mandated testing, contact tracing protocols and coordination with local health authorities. Although Gifford has not responded to our request for specific guidelines that are being followed and enforced within football, he stated that the athletic department is committed to communicating guidelines to coaches and wants to ensure student-athletes feel comfortable playing their sport.

“Beyond weekly meetings with coaches and district personnel to stay up to date on current guidelines, we have maintained an open line of communication with the community to work collaboratively to ensure a safe environment for everyone involved,” Gifford stated.

As pandemic restrictions loosen, the urge to become less diligent about following social distancing guidelines may be tempting, but it is essential that we remain disciplined. While PAUSD has worked to educate and enforce social distancing in classrooms and around campuses, the district ought to do more to do the same on the game field.