Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Nov. 19 @ 5:18 p.m. / COVID-19, Education
Parents Urge DNUSD Trustees to Adopt COVID-19 Testing Policy Allowing Students to Play Basketball and Volleyball Unmasked
Blaming a lack of policy at the local level regarding face coverings for student athletes on canceled games this week, parents urged Del Norte Unified School District trustees not to wait for local guidance before deciding if students can play basketball and volleyball unmasked.
Many also railed against Dr. Aaron Stutz, Del Norte County’s public health officer, who said that while he favored a test-based protocol allowing students to play without masks, he wanted to get consensus from colleagues in neighboring counties before ruling on the issue.
Stutz, who spoke with DNUSD trustees Thursday, said he and his colleagues are expecting “over-arching guidance” from the California Department of Public Health in about two weeks. In the meantime, Stutz said he will try to “get something out” that reflects what the consensus would be among Northern California public health officers. However, he said, that would also be some time next week.
“I don’t consider mask-wearing during sports to make a huge impact on transmission,” Stutz told trustees, adding that he’d prefer his policy to be similar to those of neighboring counties where Del Norte students often go to compete. “I think mask wearing in schools, when students are together for long periods of time in the same room is important. I will definitely be OK with moving to a test-based strategy for sports.”
That wasn’t good enough for some parents.
“I am completely let down by this doctor who can’t make a decision unless Humboldt County makes a decision,” said Lori Robson, who has lived in Del Norte County for 30 years. “We teach our kids just ‘cause someone else does it, doesn’t mean you got to do it. This is these kids’ last years and it’s a parent’s choice.”
Stutz’s presentation to DNUSD trustees came after the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for K12 student athletics in the state, issued a statement Oct. 22 regarding masks potentially being a choking hazard if worn when playing competitive cheer, gymnastics, wrestling and indoor aquatics.
CIF urged school districts statewide to test athletes participating in those sports for COVID-19 weekly or to hold those activities outdoors. Though its statement didn’t mention basketball or volleyball specifically, they urged the same protocol for other indoor sports if “a local health jurisdiction or a well-recognized health authority” deemed wearing masks while engaged in those activities posed a choking hazard.
According to Stutz, CDPH had not provided guidance regarding athletics and mask-wearing. Despite the organization’s statement to the contrary, Stutz said CIF released its statement without consulting state public health authorities.
“It takes time to develop protocols, I can’t generate them in a couple of hours,” Stutz said. “Every time I write one of these things it causes an avalanche of phone calls. I’d like to craft it carefully so Public Health isn’t dealing with a barrage of emails.”
DNUSD Superintendent Jeff Harris, noting that the district has been able to test students and staff for COVID for some time, confirmed that Stutz would offer guidance regarding student basketball and volleyball by Nov. 29.
However, pointing out that a basketball tournament is scheduled for next week and Thursday’s presentation was for information only, trustees said they’d be willing to meet before the Thanksgiving holiday to ensure those games are uninterrupted.
Both they and Harris said they shared parents’ frustrations.
“Last year our kids could play unmasked as long as they tested once a week. It makes sense,” Harris said. “This year, on Oct. 20, the state forgot athletics was happening. On Oct. 20, they put out a statement that said all students, everyone, has to be masked indoors at all times for athletic competitions. Testing wasn’t even an option.”
If the DNUSD school board acts outside state mask or vaccination mandates, if a student were to get COVID-19 and had a pre-existing condition and were to die, each trustee who voted to eliminate masking could be personally liable for that student’s death, Harris said.
Under California policy, they wouldn’t be covered through the district’s insurance provider, Harris said. However, Harris, who later on Thursday presented trustees with a letter to state officials opposing vaccine mandates, said he wanted to share the state guidance the district must abide by with the public so “you can see the kinds of things we’re having to respond to.”
“Every time we turn around, there’s something new,” he said. “We’re going to be halfway through a basketball season and they’re going to change requirements again after Thanksgiving. We are not the only ones having this conversation. More than half the state is sitting around frustrated at what masking is doing to kids, what it’s doing to staff and what vaccination mandates are doing to staff and communities.”
Robson and other parents said they were worried about negative impacts masks had on student athletes. Sommer Fitch, who coaches girl’s basketball and has three children in the school district, said one of the point guards on the sixth-seventh-grade girls basketball team had trouble breathing while wearing a mask.
“I don’t know if she was hyperventilating, but she couldn’t breathe and she was stressed out and she kept sucking in her mask, which was scary, and she ended up throwing up. We had to ask her to get some fresh air, she was so beet red and was kind of turning another color,” Fitch said. “That’s a problem. The mask is not good for them while they’re playing.”
Another coach, Blake Lopez, who has two children attending Del Norte schools, said he’s trying to encourage his charges to be positive about playing despite having to wear masks. Many become red in the face and are “dying to breathe” to play the sport, he said.
Lopez pointed out that students in 2020 were lucky to participate in the annual Jaycees basketball tournament just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After the stay at home order went into place, they couldn’t graduate with their class. He said he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to coach this year because of the conflict surrounding mask mandates.
“It’s hard enough to get people to coach because of these mandates,” Lopez said. “It’s hard enough to get good athletes to play with these mandates and it’s hard enough to keep kids in school with these mandates.”
The vitriol against mask mandates among parents wasn’t unanimous, however. Marcus Endert, whose 8th-grader is playing basketball, reminded trustees of the spike in COVID-19 cases over the summer fueled by the Delta variant.
“There was a death every single day in September and October from the Delta variant, so I really appreciate Dr. Stutz’s calm manner,” he said. “Now is not the time to assassinate the health director’s reputation. It is hard to get health professionals to come in and work for Del Norte County and this is not a good way to advertise that we need more of them when we attack these individuals.”
Volunteer coach Pablo Lorenzi said his volleyball athletes wore masks this season. Though he said it did impact students, “it doesn’t affect you from playing the game you really want to play.”
“Right now the protocol from CIF requires masking indoors, which we do not follow right now because I’ve been in and watched basketball teams practice without masks,” Lorenzi said. “To not follow protocol that is right now required is basically illegal, but we continue to do that. If we really want to play the game and if kids want to play the game, they will wear masks until protocol is set that that is not required.”
Ten new COVID-19 cases were reported to the Del Norte Public Health Branch on Thursday, making for a total of 26 active cases in the county, according to the county’s COVID-19 Information Hub. One person is currently in the hospital with coronavirus complications.
According to DNUSD’s weekly COVID-19 update published Tuesday, three students had tested positive within the last 10 days.