Members of the Calexico High School varsity boys’ basketball team (left) are shown in this photo from the 2019-2020 season courtesy of Valley Sports Network, while the Holtville High School varsity football team from 2019 is shown in this Holtville Tribune file photo. | PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

CIF Guidelines Given for Return of High School Sports

A roadmap for high school sports returning was issued this week, and the news offers a glimmer of hope for some sports but not for others.

And yet even that glimmer remains contingent on how quickly the 11-county Southern California region can emerge from an ongoing temporary “stay-at-home” order tied to intensive-care-unit capacity.   

The CIF-San Diego Section distributed an updated memorandum to all its member schools’ athletic directors and principals on Wednesday, Jan. 13, announcing that certain high school sports could begin as early as Feb. 1 depending on what COVID tier each individual county is in and whether the regional stay-at-home orders had been lifted.

With the Imperial Valley currently sitting in the Purple Tier (most high-risk), practices for high school swim and cross-country teams are permissible beginning Feb. 1, as long as the county is no longer under the regional order. While the order remains in effect, no practices can start.

“Now we’ve got some dates to work with and we now know the guidelines and tiers we need to be in for sports to begin,” said C.J. Johnston, Holtville High School’s athletic director and vice principal. “Of course, the health and safety of our students are the top priority, and we wouldn’t ever put that at risk.”

Calexico Unified School District spokesperson Alejandra Limon agreed, saying, “the health and safety of the staff and students is priority. Until they lift the order, there will be no sports.”

The Imperial High School varsity wrestling team is shown in this early 2020 photo. | PHOTO COURTESY OF VALLEY SPORTS NETWORK

CIF-SDS originally planned for its Season 1 to included football, girls’ volleyball, cross country, and competitive cheer for Imperial Valley schools. Those sports will now be allowed to “open their seasons for practice once they reach the point in which their sport is within 1 Tier Level of their assigned Tier, where athletic competitions are permitted for the sport,” according to the memo issued Wednesday.

Competitive cheer falls in Tier 2 (red) while football and girls’ volleyball fall in Tier 3 (Orange). What that means is, competitive cheer could begin practice once the stay-at-home order is lifted in Imperial County.

“I feel for all the athletes, but everything has to be done to make it as safe as possible,” said Johnston, who also serves as Holtville’s wrestling coach, a sport likely not to get cleared for this academic year. “Obviously, it looks better for the outdoor, non-contact sports.”

As for the CIF-SDS Season 2, golf, tennis, and track and field could get under way in February as they are deemed Tier 1 sports, provided the order is no longer in effect. Start dates are Feb. 8 for girls’ golf and Feb. 15 for boys’ golf, boys’ and girls’ tennis and track and field.

Red Tier (Tier 2) sports baseball and softball have a start date of March 13 provided the stay-at-home order is lifted. Orange Tier (Tier 3) sports boys’ and girls’ soccer can begin on Feb. 22 as long as the county is no longer in the Purple Tier for COVID. 

Yellow Tier (Tier 4) sports boys’ and girls’ basketball and boys’ and girls’ wrestling can begin as early as March 13, if Imperial County reaches the Orange Tier (Tier 3) level for COVID.

CIF-SDS also deemed that each member school or district may elect to open their seasons at a later date and that student athletes may only participate in one sport during the same time or season. If seasons overlap and an athlete wants to play a sport in Season 2, the athlete must stop playing the Season 1 sport.

Imperial Valley high school athletic directors met with CIF-SDS Commissioner Joe Heinz on Thursday, Jan. 14, for further clarification on future practice and competition dates. He told them that while other sections in the state had ruled out any playoffs or section championships, San Diego Section had not ruled out the possibility of section championships.

All of the scenarios being discussed are a big if, because the elephant in the room is that stay-at-home order, which is tied directly to cumulative ICU capacity in all of Southern California, not just Imperial County.

Calexico’s Limon was perhaps a little more realistic about the prospects of a sports season happening anytime soon.

“With (COVID) case rates right now, we’re not even close,” she said on Friday, Jan. 15. “It’s unfortunate that we’re in this situation. We all understand the students want to get back to playing sports.”

The temporary stay-at-home order is tied to ICU capacity that has to be above 15 percent for the entire region. While COVID hospitalizations and ICU capacity is beginning to ebb ever so slightly in Imperial County, hospitalizations and COVID case rates in areas like San Diego County and Los Angeles County are as high as they have been.

As of Friday, ICU capacity for the region was at zero percent, which it has been for more than two straight weeks. The temporary order cannot be lifted until the state Department of Public Health can project ICU capacity above 15 percent for the region for four consecutive weeks.

Case rates and hospitalizations are high all over much of California, with four of the state’s five regions under the 15 percent capacity.

On Jan. 15, Imperial County had more than 1,800 active COVID cases, with available ICU beds between the Valley’s two hospitals at zero and some 61 COVID patients in the hospitals’ ICU.

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