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By Zach Cavanagh
This week marked 10 months since high school sports were shut down in California.
After being off the field since March due to coronavirus concerns, high school programs began limited and restricted workouts in August. Sports continue to be kept out of competitions with stay-at-home orders and sports being assigned to various tiers of the state’s coronavirus monitoring system.
Student-athletes, parents and coaches let their frustrations and their desire to return to sports be known with #LetThemPlayCA rallies at high schools up and down California on Friday, Jan. 15.
“This is definitely something we had to do,” San Clemente senior football and basketball player Cole Batson said. “It’s good positive vibes that need to be put out, and people need to join us and open their eyes. These seniors have been waiting their entire high school careers, and now that they’re big people on campus, they don’t get that senior experience.
“I feel like a lot of people take that for granted, and I wish they could feel our pain and see what we’re going through.”
Spurred on by a Facebook group with over 34,000 members, the #LetThemPlayCA movement hosted rallies at nearly 140 high schools in California, with all the rallies kicking off at 4 p.m. In the group’s description on Facebook, it says it a community for those “who have lost out on their sport seasons due to arbitrary shutdowns.”
“There’s no rhyme or reason why they can’t play football. They can social distance when they go out for practice, all that stuff,” said John Rosmalen, whose son, a junior, plays football at San Clemente High. “The NFL can do it, college can do it. Why can’t we do it?”
South Orange County saw rallies at JSerra, San Juan Hills and San Clemente, as well as Capistrano Valley, Tesoro and Santa Margarita. Nearly every participant wore masks and tried to socially distance, as the group’s instructions called for.
San Clemente drew a crowd of two dozen parents and athletes and plenty of honks and waves from passing cars at the intersection of Pico and Presidio. JSerra had roughly 60 athletes, coaches and administrators gather for a photo on the football field. San Juan Hills also earned its honks and waves from passing traffic with a group of 10 parents and athletes at the corner of La Pata and Ortega Highway.
The group is calling upon state officials to make changes to the guidelines in place and let high school sports resume – as they have in over 40 other states so far – for the mental and social well-being of these student-athletes.
“Somebody needs to stand up for our kids, and right now they’re pawns for the political game, for the teachers union, and all the b.s. going on right now,” Steph O’Reilly, a San Juan Hills volleyball parent, said. “They need to open up sports, let the kids have their lives back, and do it safely.”
Supporters of the movement say that the risk of COVID-19 to high school-aged students is minimal, with either little risk of transmission and smaller risk of serious illness.
“I think we’ve learned that COVID transmission in high school athletics is something that’s exceedingly rare,” JSerra principal Eric Stroupe said. “More to the point, this community, in terms of the age of the students, is such that even if they were to get COVID, the vast majority of kids are not going to get terribly sick. When you balance the emotion, social, mental health of our kids against the COVID risks, to me, the former are much more important.”
Ahead of Friday’s rallies, the Golden State High School Football Coaches Community published estimated statistics from 251 schools gathered between May 1-Dec. 31, 2020 that the community believes showed that “coaches and athletes have successfully worked out and are safe on campus.”
According to the Golden State Coaches, there were 522 reports of positive COVID-19 cases reported among the 19,630 athletes over 933,895 workouts at these schools, with only nine total positive cases attributed to on-campus workouts. Among the 2,897 coaches involved, there were 187 reports of positive COVID-19 cases over the course of 129,244 workouts, with only two total positive cases attributed to on-campus workouts.
That works out to an estimated 3% of athletes and 6.5% of coaches of those schools that reported coming back with positive COVID-19 results linked to on-campus workouts with 98.5% of cases traced elsewhere.
“We think we can do it safely,” JSerra football coach Pat Harlow, who had a bout with coronavirus in June, said. “We’ve been doing practices, obviously with restrictions and conditions. We’ve been doing it since August, and we’ve been good. I think the data throughout the state proves that. We’d just like to have the opportunity to go out and compete.”
As of Friday in Orange County, 9.6% of coronavirus cases over the course of the pandemic are age 17 and younger with only one death, which was accompanied by underlying health conditions. The death rate has risen sharply in Orange County in recent weeks, but the large majority are in the oldest age brackets.
The #LetThemPlayCA movement has also focused on the fact that California is one of only six states that doesn’t have a proposed start date in place for high school sports. Other states have completed full and regular high school seasons, and many California club teams have gone to other states to participate in competitions.
“Some of (the neighboring states) have done it without any of the fans in the stands or limiting the fans by just having parents of players allowed to attend,” Erica Brunson, a San Clemente football and baseball parent, said. “They followed the social distancing rules. you can add masks. A lot of what’s already happening in the workouts can just continue to happen.”
While there have been criticisms of those wishing to push through and play amid the growing coronavirus numbers and in the face of the state’s guidelines, the parents at Friday’s rallies focused on the well-being of their children beyond just competition.
“The last eight, nine, months have been horrible for them,” Michael O’Reilly, a San Juan Hills volleyball parent, said. “A lot of (the effects) are attached to them directly being able to be social and being able to exercise their opportunities to play sports.”
The next step for this group and the parents, athletes and coaches involved is to ride the momentum from these statewide rallies and grab the ear of state officials to find a way to play.
“I think that we as adults, parents, coaches, administrators,” San Clemente football coach and parent Brian Batson said, “we owe it to (the kids) to figure out a way, and there is a way. And the fact that we haven’t found that way is frankly a tragedy, and as adults, we’ve failed.”
Shawn Raymundo and Collin Breaux contributed to this story.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.