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By Zach Cavanagh

As Orange County incrementally lifts some coronavirus restrictions and slightly expands capacities, the Capistrano Unified School District athletics programs make their slow march toward full participation.

On Sept. 23, CUSD released guidelines for Phase 2 of the district’s return to training for athletics and physical activity, which is highlighted by small increases in group size, addition of equipment, opening of weight rooms and small allowances for indoor activity.

“The Capistrano Unified School District, in conjunction with the State CIF, believes education‐based athletics is essential to the physical, mental and social well‐being of students, and it is important for them to return to physical activity and athletic competition,” the district said in its guidelines statement. “However, the timing of such is subject to the Governor’s Office, the California Department of Education and State/Local Public Health Departments; variations may be tied to assessing risk levels of the sports offered.”

After an initial July startup was halted by reinforcements of state guidelines, CUSD was allowed to open Phase 1 of the return to athletics with small and limited conditioning camps on Aug. 18. On Sept. 8, the state moved Orange County down from the most restrictive COVID-19 monitoring tier down to the red “substantial” tier—the state’s second-highest, risk-level designation—which opened the way for the eventual physical reopening of school campuses.

Phase 2 workouts at San Clemente High School began last week, as the school and district prepare for the reopening of high school campuses on Tuesday, Oct. 13.

“We believe that education‐based athletics is vital to our mission, and we want to provide the best possible experience for those who matter most—our students,” the district statement said. “In doing so, we will continue to develop guidelines consistent with the directives from State/Local Public Health Departments.”

For Phase 2, health screenings and all other entrance and exit protocols remain intact, but the most noticeable change will be in the size of the groups.

The pods of athletes increase to 15 athletes from Phase 1’s group of nine, with still only one coach assigned to the pod. The group will still maintain consistent members to reduce exposure and allow for contact tracing should it be needed. In total, there can be only 64 people at one time on a football field, 32 on a baseball or softball field or pool deck.

With the movement to the red tier, indoor gyms and fitness centers were allowed to reopen at 10% capacity, and that guideline extends to school athletics programs. Masks also will be required indoors at all times. A total of 32 people will be allowed in a main gym and only the pod-sized 16 people in smaller facilities, such as a wrestling room or the weight room.

Weight room activities are limited to the 16-person pods, and physical distancing and various sanitizing of equipment will be enforced. Exercises and lifts will need to be done without a spotter, and all equipment is thoroughly wiped down before and after each use.

Various sports are now allowed to start using equipment, particularly each sport’s game ball, but there will still be no sharing of any equipment, which includes passing the ball.

Basketball, lacrosse, volleyball and water polo all emphasize individual ball skill drills, with each player having their own ball, but no passing is allowed among teammates. Soccer also emphasizes individual drills but lacks the note of passing among teammates. Soccer does limit drills to feet only—no heading or use of hands.

Baseball is limited to conditioning and tee work, as players cannot throw the ball around or catch during batting practice. Football is limited to conditioning and individual drills, as handing off or throwing the ball and contact are still not allowed. Contact is not allowed in any sport yet, including wrestling and cheerleading.

Tennis allows the hitting of balls with the racket between players, but each player must have their own can of balls to hit. Cross country, track, swimming, golf and surfing only emphasize physical distiancing.

Zach Cavanagh

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 zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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