Nicholas Ibarra | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Grant High School football coach Carl Reed says coaches wear masks to protect their players. Reed is responsible for about 80 student-athletes across the junior varsity and varsity teams. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Schools across the Sacramento region have returned to in-person instruction, which means sports are back in action. But a recent spike in COVID-19 numbers driven by the Delta variant means extra precautions for athletes and fans to ensure full seasons are played.

New cases of the Delta variant are averaging 500 daily in Sacramento County, county Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said in a media briefing Aug. 27 via Zoom.

Athletics health measures and protocols are taken directly from county and Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations and are followed strictly. The California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports in the state, issued a handbook detailing precautions schools must take, as well as a plan on who to call and how to proceed in case of an emergency.

Derek Swafford has been athletics director of Fortune Schools’ 10 Sacramento campuses since 2017. Fortune has four sports programs — basketball, volleyball, soccer, and track — and about 50 participating athletes. 

Swafford’s stance is simple.

“If you want to play sports,” he said, “you’ve got to be tested and you’ve got to be vaccinated.” 

Fortune’s athletes and coaches must wear masks at all times with certain exceptions, such as someone with asthma. In such cases, that person would be required to separate from groups — six feet or more — to remove their mask and catch their breath before returning with their mask on. Athletes and coaches are kept six feet apart and if either, coach or player, is experiencing symptoms then they are required to be quarantined until symptoms subside and two negative tests are provided. Everything touched is sanitized: the athletes’ hands, the sports equipment, and the areas where games are played. Parents are responsible for kids’ tests and providing the results to the school, which is then provided to the athletic department.

Nick Mori, Sacramento County Public Health program planner, said in a media briefing that the county issued supplemental guidance for K-12 schools to account for gaps in the statewide guidelines issued earlier this year. Those guidelines strongly recommend that athletics programs perform routine testing, and require face coverings for indoor sports and strongly encourage them at outdoor sports, as well as vaccinations for anyone eligible.

As one of the few Black athletic directors in Northern California, Fortune School’s Derek Swafford says he is particularly protective of his student-athletes. “If you want to play sports,” he says, “you’ve got to be tested and you’ve got to be vaccinated.” Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

Swafford said parents have been cooperative in having their kids tested, but that a school mandate to be vaccinated or not play became Fortune’s choice “because we knew once things opened up it would be a requirement. So we’re a little ahead of the game.” 

Swafford emphasized the importance of having a season. He worked with some of the kids during their freshman year. Now that they have missed their sophomore year, they desperately need to play a junior season to develop in the game and create opportunities for scholarships.

So far, no COVID cases have been reported within Fortune athletics.

Carl Reed, the new head football coach at Grant Union High School, said while indoors — in locker rooms and athletic training rooms — his athletes are under protocols to remain in small groups and wear masks. On the field, masks are worn and coaches try to avoid drills that require close contact of 15 minutes or more, such as blocking or tackling. Many drills are performed with equipment, such as blocking and tackle pads, to mitigate against physical contact. Everyone is required to bring their own water, as the school is no longer providing it as a precaution against a potential outbreak. 

Weekly testing has not yet been made mandatory, said Reed, who is responsible for about 80 student-athletes across the junior varsity and varsity teams. The school is awaiting guidance from the county and the district. Testing is offered through the district and families are responsible for self-reporting results.

Reed admitted that there had been positive COVID cases within the program, but did not disclose a number. If an athlete tests positive, it is reported to the school nurse and contact tracing is conducted. Those affected are placed in quarantine.​​ Those who are unvaccinated and experience contact tracing are placed in a 10-day quarantine. Those who are vaccinated can bypass the quarantine period unless symptoms are present.

“Everybody’s happy to be back; we’re excited and we’re moving forward,” Reed said. “We’re hoping and we’re confident that we’re going to go through a whole season. It’s great for the mental health of the kids. They’re back; they’re outside; they’re being active. We are mildly optimistic.”

As far as spectators, schools must follow capacity limits dependent on the county’s tier. For indoor and outdoor sports, fans are required to wear masks and maintain a social distance of six feet or more. Concession stands will be closed so spectators will have to bring their own food and drinks where permitted. Indoor sports’ spectators will be limited to immediate family members. 

‘D-Fence’ Against COVID

The California Department of Public Health on Aug. 2 updated K-12 schools protocol guidance.

  • Rigorous testing and contact tracing; 
  • Vaccinations for anyone who is eligible; 
  • Mandatory mandate on masks indoors and encouraged outdoors; 
  • Maintaining physical distancing when possible; 
  • No sharing of drink bottles or other personal items; and
  • The washing or sanitizing of hands and equipment before, during, and after the activity.