Team bonding has always come easy for the MVHS swim team, a vibrant community of more than 100 swimmers, recalls senior and team captain Shannon Wong. But that changed drastically this past season, as Wong found socially-distanced practices at Homestead High School’s (HHS) pool to keep the less than 50 swimmers anxious and team morale low.
In response to these challenges, swim team captains created a petition demanding that practices be moved back to MVHS. Wong says that the petition gained support from both swimmers and the MVHS community but was ultimately ineffective due to its poor timing — it was promoted only a little over a week before the team’s shift back to MVHS on March 1.
Though moving back to their home pool alleviated some of the issues that had plagued the team during their practices in Homestead High School’s smaller pool, like junior varsity swimmers practicing at a later time than varsity players and leaving practice as late as 10 p.m., Wong still finds the format of these socially-distanced practices to be less than ideal. She notes that while MVHS’ pool is slightly bigger than HHS and allows for more lanes, members of the team are still limited to two swimmers per lane as per CDC guidelines.
According to Wong, these social distancing guidelines at both Homestead and MVHS have caused low morale. For example, the team no longer participates in typical meets — instead, they record times at MVHS to send to the meet’s hosting school. Swimmers must also follow guidelines at all times during daily practices, which Wong found her team struggling with, especially at the beginning of the season. However, she has noticed improvement in this throughout the season, but is still concerned about the COVID-19 guidelines for athletics in general.
“I am a little concerned about other sports [resuming], though, just because there’s a lot going on during the sports facilities at Monta Vista when we’re all practicing, so it’s a little uneasy, just because there’s more people,” Wong said. “But it’s not concerning to the point where we aren’t able to attend practice.”
Similarly, public health guidelines have also impacted the social experience for Cross Country runners. Junior Andrew Cole, for example, misses the hours after practice he would previously spend bonding with his teammates, whether that was playing ultimate frisbee together or “just [lying] on the ground for a couple hours.” Cole also reminisces about the team’s overnight trips to meets of up to 45,000 fellow runners. Due to COVID-19, larger meets have been replaced with smaller ones of less than 700 runners. At these meets, runners are required to follow guidelines such as wearing masks, which Cole has struggled to get used to.
“We [wear masks] whenever it’s needed and whenever it’s convenient,” Cole said. “When we’re out on a trail [alone], it’s fine. But when we’re on campus, we always do. Some people say they can see my teeth when I’m breathing in just because I’m sucking in air [and the] mask presses up against my teeth. It’s most uncomfortable at the end of a race because you have to put your mask on right as you’re finished, within a minute of finishing and that’s uncomfortable because you’re breathing really hard.”
Athletic director Nick Bonacorsi says this applies to all sports — all athletes are required to wear masks whenever possible during practices. But he draws a distinction between pre-season conditioning, in which athletes must socially distance, and actual practices, during which athletes can share team equipment and move closer than six feet for scrimmages or drills. Other safety protocols the school follows include disinfecting bathrooms thrice a day, no longer offering water for athletes and maintaining 25 feet of distance between each sport on fields.
Social distancing guidelines have not only impacted individuals’ experiences but also teams collectively. For instance, sophomore and field hockey player Gwyneth To says that in order to comply with social distancing, her team drills are now primarily focused on individual gameplay rather than team bonding. As a result, To must focus on establishing strong foundations of communication among her players on the field.
“[Communication] is normally an issue every year but this year especially since our drills are designed to be further apart,” To said. “Teammates have to be calling out, wherever we are on the field, by using command calls such as ‘through,’ ‘flat’ [and] ‘behind’ to try and navigate our passes.”
Despite the difficulties of initiating team bonding this year, especially with new members, To believes that in-person practices are better than nothing since they enable players to familiarize themselves with the playing styles of their teammates, a crucial quality of successful teams that is difficult to achieve through remote practices.
“[The benefits are] a slight combination [of physical and social], [especially] being able to see my teammates because in isolation, I was practicing in my own backyard, and that wasn’t the same,” To said. “[Practicing with] other people just give[s] you a perspective on what gameplay will be like, especially since [field hockey] is a team sport and it’s hard to predict what other members or your opponents, would be playing if you’re doing it by yourself. And if you’re practicing by yourself, it’s hard to improve because you really only have a certain number of drills that you can do.”
To says that in addition to increasing cohesion among teammates, in-person practices have also increased excitement because athletes for team sports can once again interact with their teammates on the field, a sentiment that Bonacorsi echoes.
“You can just feel the energy when the sports start-up and when each new team comes out,” Bonacorsi said. “The level of excitement, the happiness, the giggling — all that kind of stuff that we haven’t seen in a long time just kind of floods back in. I think that has been a great benefit to our student-athletes and our coaches as well.”
Senior and football player Michael Pavlik observes that morale is also higher on the football team, which he attributes to the fact that many of the players originally feared not having a season entirely.
But the football team has also faced its share of difficulties, from rushed athletic clearances — including physical forms signed by a physician and a concussion baseline test — to decreased turnout at practices, especially from veteran players who have decided not to play this season due to COVID-19.
“It’s just not having [these players] out, it’s just kind of sad, because they’re your friends, they’re your teammates, they’re important parts of the team,” Pavlik said. “But I feel [that] me and my coach and the team, we’re very adaptable, so we can get through that.”
These five members of the MVHS athletic community have found resuming in-person practices to be an unpredictable journey. But Bonacorsi is grateful that athletes are once again able to enjoy their sports in-person. He predicts that all sports will start this year if cases continue on their downward trend.
“[I felt] probably some sort of blend between fear and excitement,” Bonacorsi said. “You know, it wasn’t expected … But all of the apprehension and fear of what [sports is] going to look like goes away once the athletes are here and you see the excitement among them. [Even] the excitement from the coaches just kind of [shows] how happy everyone is to be involved. It really does make it all worth it — all the logistical pieces and all the time that goes into it. It does — it’s gratifying and it’s great to see.”
The month of March marked a year of the COVID-19 lockdown — now, vaccine distribution across the country has allowed some local school districts to transition back to some form of in-person instruction. By enforcing strict guidelines on each school, local and statewide officials have begun giving clearance for sports to start their seasons.
Following the lockdown order last year, county programs as well as FUHSD were forced to cancel all events, programs and sports practices. Later in the summer, FUHSD’s announcement of distance learning and the cancellation of fall season sports was enough to cause outrage from some community members. Using the hashtag #LetThemPlay to spread their goal of reopening on social media and protesting in front of district offices, many student athletes and their parents have become activists for the re-opening of sports.
The #LetThemPlay movement advocates for students to return to sports in-person immediately, one of its reasons being the emotional and mental benefits of playing sports. With proper implementation of safety protocols including hand washing frequently, wearing masks and social distancing, protestors argue that sports can return soon.
Though Athletic Director Nick Bonacorsi did not join the #LetThemPlay movement, he sees why the movement has taken shape and supports parents advocating for their kids.
“I 100% understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Bonacorsi said. “I never chose to join the movement in any way. I understand what they’re doing — their parents are doing what parents should do, right? Because the role of a parent to me in a situation like this is to advocate for their kid [and] that’s what they’re doing.”
While junior and soccer player Shervin Jalilvand emphasizes the importance of safe athletic conditions, he generally agrees with the movement.
Jalilvand and the soccer team returned to play in their first league game on March 15. He is grateful for the school and county officials’ decision to re-open athletics, citing its positive impact on student mental health and athletics’ role in student-athletes’ futures, especially if they are considering playing the sport in college.
Despite these benefits, junior and volleyball player Arthur Chan says that not all sports should be returning to play — especially since he believes that the re-opening will have a lower maximum benefit for mental health due to the limited bonding exercises and the shorter season lengths of six weeks compared to the typical several months. He agrees that there are sports that are safe to resume due to larger distances between players, such as golf, but says that rushing to resume all sports could do more harm than good.
As the county moved from the purple to the red tier on March 2 2021 , FUHSD and the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) both created new guidelines that would allow for all sports to start again, including Chan’s sport, volleyball. Despite his initial concerns, Chan trusts the league to make informed decisions and plans to play in the upcoming season.
“I can trust my teammates and other schools in our league, to an extent — most of it is just awareness,” Chan said. “They [should be like], ‘Alright, I’ll back up a little bit,’ but a lot of [vigilance] just comes because we want to get back out there, but we don’t exactly have a good way to do it.”
Enforced by coaches, COVID-19 guidelines differ by sport in their timeframes, schedules and regulations. SVCAL’s tier system allows for some sports, such as an indoor sport like badminton, to begin at a less restrictive safety tier of orange, while most outdoor sports such as swimming were reinstated at a more limiting safety tier of purple.
Bonacorsi says that his wife, who works in biotechnology, has discussed with him about how she believes the district is moving too quickly, but as the athletic director, Bonacorsi also wants students to start participating in sports again. In all, he believes that the sports are trending in a positive direction.
“I think what we’re doing is safe from the protocols and the guidelines that the county has put forward and the kids love it,” Bonacorsi said. “As long as they’re willing to do it, and our coaches are willing to help out, I’m happy with the direction we’re going.”
Despite this, Chan believes that sports that share equipment are inherently more dangerous, but says that he thinks regular COVID testing could be effective in stopping the spread before it becomes out of control within a team.
“Sports like volleyball have a shared ball,” Chan said. “So, no matter what you do, you’re going to get somebody else’s sweat on your hand. So that’s a big issue — obviously I would say, you [have] to test everybody. Obviously, there can be false negatives or false positives, but that kind of stuff is a good indicator and can help lower the risk of actually having COVID-19 within the gym.”
While they do share equipment, athletes and coaches still have to report symptoms, wear masks and keep their distance consistently. This requires accountability and trust, which the Athletic Boosters president and sports advocate Erin Mobley emphasizes as key factors in maintaining this state.
“It’s not spread by you going outside and kicking a ball around,” Mobley said. “[You’re] much less likely [to contract COVID-19], especially if you wash your hands before and after and you’re wearing a mask. Because of that, I think that being in a sport and being outside, you really do have to trust your teammates and their families because it could be exponential — the impact of one person lying or not following the same protocols you are could be devastating.”
Mobley, who works with students in person at Montecito Preschool, has diligently followed COVID-19 protocols by encouraging transparency about students’ experiences outside the classroom. By asking parents and students daily questions about symptoms, exposure and travel and following protocols, such as checking temperatures frequently, wearing masks and social distancing, Mobley says she ensures the students and staff at the preschool are safe.
Due to this, the preschool has been able to stay open since June 23 without a single COVID case reported over the course of the pandemic. Encouraged by this success, Mobley argues that such disciplinary measures can be implemented in not only all sports programs but also in in-person school at MVHS — she believes that the process of reinstatement has been pushed back far enough.
“I feel like there’s a new normal — just like with the cold and flu and cancer and everything else that we have to live with this virus for the rest of our life,“ Mobley said. “But I also think that we were conservative in our school district and in our school with opening up very slowly and very carefully. I don’t think it was pushed too fast; we waited until the last quarter of the year to [reinstate sports], and we waited for the scientific numbers to be down, and continue to go down as the vaccines [continue] to [be distributed]. It’s starting to move in the right direction.”
On Feb. 1, practices for season one sports officially resumed as part of the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) three-season sports schedule. Four sports teams, including Cross Country, Girls Golf, Girls Tennis, Swimming and Diving, began practicing while following a strict protocol to minimize the risks of COVID-19. This includes being masked at all times, staying six feet apart as often as possible and not sharing water with teammates.
Throughout the pandemic, Athletic Director Nick Bonacorsi’s goal has been to keep athletes engaged with their sports. He stresses the importance of allowing small cohorts to begin conditioning in person, especially considering that attendance for Zoom practices has been low.
“My goal is to provide the greatest opportunity for the greatest number of our athletes as possible,” Bonacorsi said. “We’re not going to favor or we intend to not favor one sport over another or one group of athletes over another group of athletes — we want to try and provide a broad-based opportunity for as many student-athletes as possible. That was the approach of the league and why they attempted to sort of move some sports around and shrink some seasons down to try and give more access to opportunity for more sports.”
When it comes to analyzing how decisions are made to reopen high school sports programs, the process begins at the state level. As Governor Gavin Newson updates protocols, Santa Clara County then weighs in under the guidance of county Public Health Director Dr. Sara Cody and the county Department of Public Health to make the final decisions that are rolled out to school districts.
The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) often makes decisions and announcements based on county updates — as MVHS is a part of the Central Coast Section (CCS) within the CIF, some league-specific decisions and protocols are put into place in the SCVAL.
Throughout the summer of 2020, small cohorts of teams were allowed to begin conditioning in person and at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, tentative practice schedules were being pushed out by the CIF for the school year ahead. This schedule estimated practice and competition start dates for season one sports to begin on Dec. 14, 2020. At that time, California was in the purple tier, so the SCVAL changed plans from what the CCS originally had announced, and as a result, a new three-season schedule was announced on Jan. 21, 2021.
“We expected the announcement in the way that it came — I wasn’t shocked by what decisions they made,” Bonacorsi said. “Our league actually pivoted pretty drastically from what the CCS put out … All of our updates have come very fast and very last minute with not a lot of lead time to get things organized. But we’ve been able to adjust and adapt and make it work so far, which has been great.”
The new three-season schedule condenses a sports season full of practices and competitions within a two-month time frame. Student-athletes are also allowed to receive their Physical Education course credits despite having a shorter sports season.
FUHSD Director of Athletics Engagement John Dwyer says that multiple factors were taken into account in the discussions surrounding the reopening of sports.
“We really wanted to try and find some way to meet not only the physical needs of kids but also the social and emotional needs,” Dwyer said. “[It] became apparent that a lot of kids were having difficulties emotionally and socially with the extended isolation periods. One of the things we really wanted to do was to be able to return or support some return to athletics in some capacity for those kids who want to participate.”
Because the decisions to reopen sports aren’t made entirely by the SCVAL or the athletic directors at each school, Dwyer highlights the importance of communication between different parties throughout the reopening process.
“We’ve handled changes by meeting as regularly as possible and sharing communications amongst ourselves as frequently as possible,” Dwyer said. “It takes a lot [of collaboration between] me, the athletic directors, the athletes and administrators. [We all] meet once a week and are constantly updating ourselves on what other school districts are doing and what the health department is doing … We’ve learned that things change very, very quickly. We have to be willing and able to adjust and pivot at a moment’s notice.”
As practices for season three sports approach on April 5, athletes’ safety in indoor contact sports like wrestling has been a constant factor in consideration by Dwyer and various athletic directors. Dwyer explains plans for new health regulations should COVID-19 cases begin to rise within Santa Clara County.
Currently, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has determined that outdoor high-contact sports cannot operate if there are above 14 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people within a county. If cases per 100,000 people in Santa Clara County lie between seven and 14, sports can operate with testing, and if cases per 100,000 people are below seven, no testing is required.
On March 24, it was announced that all MVHS athletes and coaches from girls volleyball and badminton will need to get a weekly COVID-19 test at MVHS. In instances like these where plans have altered to continue sports programs at MVHS safely, Bonacorsi nevertheless feels grateful that sports are resuming in at least some capacity despite the pandemic.
“I don’t care at all about wins and losses, especially for this year,” Bonacorsi said. “The competitive side of me always wants to win and always wants to do our best, but I think it’s a win just that we’re practicing … I’m really happy with the direction we’re heading in. I know it’s not perfect [and] it’s not what it was two years ago. But the kids and the coaches have been great about adapting to the times that we’re in and having opportunities for people to compete, which is what it’s all about.”