Quick Take:

Amid confusion by sports league officials and parents over testing requirements and who is supposed to interpret them, Santa Cruz County health officials are saying they have “no oversight or orders related to return-to-play issues for high school sports.”

One football game was successfully played this week, but the others scheduled to be played in Santa Cruz County this weekend had to be postponed as local officials wrestle with complex state guidelines on how to safely play high school sports during the waning pandemic.

Amid confusion by sports league officials and parents over testing requirements and who is supposed to interpret them, county health officials in a statement Friday afternoon said they have “no oversight or orders related to return-to-play issues for high school sports.”

The confusion was creating widespread anger among coaches, athletic directors, parents and players who had been told they could at least partake in scrimmages this weekend. Santa Cruz County’s first football game in 15 months happened Thursday night — and schools in other counties are kicking off play this weekend.

For its part, the Santa Cruz County public health department said it could only offer advice on the subject.

“Guidelines for practice, competition, testing, spectators and other issues are developed and issued by the California Department of Public Health, and it is the responsibility of local governing and oversight bodies, including the County Office of Education, to monitor and implement those guidelines, including any changes,” the county public health division posted on Twitter Friday. “We support healthy and safe competitions among local youth sports teams, and look forward to seeing our sons and daughters return to the field of play as soon as possible.”

County spokesman Jason Hoppin said the county is neither prohibiting any play nor interpreting any guidelines. He said the latter falls to the County Office of Education. “It’s their job to interpret it,” Hoppin said.

A voicemail left for County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Faris Sabbah on Friday evening was not immediately returned.

The statement by public health officials came in the wake of sports league commissioners, parents and COE leaders trying to make sense of the state’s guidance and its recent changes. An email exchange between Sabbah and County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel obtained by Lookout shows jut how complicated everything has become.

Sabbah wrote Newel trying to get clarity as to which part of the state guidance on high school sports that his office needs to follow.

Newel told Sabbah that the state’s guidance on high school sports is “complex and nuanced” and has changed “considerably” since a lawsuit related to the issue was settled last week. A CDPH update from March 4, she wrote, “voids the previous testing requirements” and “requires the much stricter collegiate team testing regimen.”

That update specifies that with the high-contact sports of football, water polo and rugby, regardless of local COVID positivity rates, “teams can return to competition only if they adhere to the stricter requirements in place for college teams, which include rigorous testing requirements around each competition, following contact tracing protocols, and coordination with local health authorities.”

“I’m sorry this isn’t easier,” Newel wrote.

But not everyone agrees with county health officials’ interpretation of the state guidance.

“It is my belief that the Santa Cruz health department has it wrong,” said Dave Grissom, commissioner of the Central Coast Section, which includes Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Benito, Monterey, San Francisco and Santa Cruz counties.


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While San Francisco has yet to issue a restart plan on sports, Grissom said each of the other four CCS counties are interpreting California Department of Public Health guidelines in similar fashion as it pertains to COVID testing for football, water polo and rugby.

That fashion makes it easier for players to take the field — and wouldn’t require testing with the case rates that currently exist in Santa Cruz County. “It’s pretty clear what the guidance says,” he said. “And for them to read more into it than that, I just think they’re missing the boat.”

One parent of a Soquel High player, Jennifer Akiyama, summed up her son’s disappointment in an email to Lookout:

“This has been a really hard year for kids. They haven’t been in school, they can’t hang out with their friends, every aspect of a normal high school experience has been put on hold. Throughout all disappointments my kids have faced there has been one shining star for my youngest son. Soquel High has had an amazing football program that has followed every rule and has given my child such a mental boost throughout COVID. He has been counting down for their first scrimmage tomorrow. The entire team was tested this week, following state guidelines, and all tested negative. Now, the afternoon before their first scrimmage, we have been informed that the county has somehow incorrectly ‘interpreted’ the CA department of public health guidelines prohibiting them from playing in the scrimmage tomorrow. The testing procedures that were APPROVED have now been retracted. My heart aches for my kid and for the loss of yet another opportunity that is senseless.”

Follow Patrick Riley on: Twitter. Patrick Riley is Lookout Santa Cruz’s county government accountability reporter. He comes to Lookout from Florida, where he covered Collier County government for the...

Follow Mark Conley on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Mark joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor on a staff that covered three...