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Home / CIF-SS

Empty Bleachers: A series on the 2020 experience of local high school athletics

Editor’s note: How did student-athletes handle the psychological struggle of being in a bubble without sports? How did coaches and parents support the kids? How was college recruiting affected by the shutdown?

These topics will be discussed over the next three weeks in Hey SoCal’s new column, “Empty Bleachers.” 

We have spoken to several individuals throughout the San Gabriel Valley, along with other regions amongst Los Angeles County, who were challenged during the year-long hiatus.

These are their experiences.

. . .

Two years have gone by now, and we still can’t act like we’re currently living in normal reality with the ominous cloud of COVID-19 still hanging overhead. For high school athletics, especially in 2020, the residual damage can still be felt.

Even now, we are experiencing another surge in cases in Southern California and across the country.

Yet, optimism can — maybe? — be felt by avoiding the uncertainty of the future and instead reflecting on the concrete evidence of the past.

You thought high school was rough? Try it during a pandemic.

In 2020, things were a lot different for us than they are now; and things were far more challenging.

It is hard, from recent memory, to think of a period of time that was more disheartening than those 12 months. The world completely flipped on its head within the span of a few weeks, and little to no one knew how to respond.

One group of individuals who faced a massive shift in everyday circumstances was high school students — particularly high school athletes.

High school athletics hold immense value on most campuses across the country. Oftentimes, it builds communities and is a great tool to bring students together to share one common goal and philosophy. Beyond this factor, though, sports can be a pivotal instrument in discovering purpose. That cherished game — whichever it may be — is something that student-athletes admire and love competing in.

Two years ago, they had no choice but to live without it. 

We have come a long way.

The uncertainty of COVID-19 in March 2020 left school districts on edge, and five days after the World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic, California announced that all school buildings would be closed entirely and educators would need to adjust to remote learning.

The Mt. Mansfield Union High School boys basketball team practices in Jericho on Thursday, January 21, 2021. | Photo courtesy of Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The decision led to an abrupt stop to every spring sport, which were in the midst of their 2019-20 seasons — and fall sports that were beginning to meet for practice could no longer use school facilities to do so.

By late August, despite pressure from several local small organizations to bring sports back, districts continued to notice COVID spikes, and once again campuses remained closed under state guidelines. Although teams were finally able to meet and participate in practices during this time, team comradery completely disappeared as social distance guidelines needed to be met.

| Courtesy of The Aspen Institute Project Play

Months down the road athletics eventually made a return. After the fall semester ended, the push for high school sports to come back from local parties was similar to an avalanche. Suddenly, California began to prioritize it. 

Cross country was the first sport to make a return thanks to athletes being separated from each other during meets, along with the outdoor setting. The state eventually passed a regulation from the Department of Public Health to set up a return for all outdoor sports. Indoor sports, such as basketball and volleyball soon followed, and by April 2021 high school sports were in full effect, with a statewide return to campus not far off after that.

But, are there long-lasting effects?

Nevertheless, there are still challenges facing high school athletics, even now. Strict regulations remain in effect, and at any given point continued developments from the virus could take their season away in the blink of an eye.

If that does somehow happen, at least students will now have the experience of how to adjust. But in 2020, what was that unprecedented response like?

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