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Superintendents ask for limited spectators at sports and other events

They proposed allowing 20% capacity and/or letting participants have up to six family members present, depending on the venue’s capacity, for sports, plays, concerts and other campus events.|

Eight superintendents from the largest school districts in Sonoma County have pushed back on the most recent health order from Dr. Sundari R. Mase, the county health officer, asking her to reconsider some of the restrictions placed on indoor gatherings such as basketball games at schools.

Superintendents from the Windsor, Healdsburg, West County, Sonoma Valley, Cloverdale, Petaluma, Cotati-Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa City Schools districts — representing most of the county’s 67,000 K-12 public school students — sent a letter to Mase last week proposing new spectator guidelines for indoor school events.

They proposed allowing 20% capacity and/or letting participants have up to six family members present, depending on the venue’s capacity, for sports, plays, concerts and other campus events.

The superintendents said their main goal is to open a dialogue with Mase and the county health department about finding some leeway in restrictions meant to stem a wave of cases tied to the highly infectious omicron variant.

“We want to work with the county to find some middle ground,” Healdsburg Unified School District Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel said. “I think there is definitely a reasonable approach that would still allow a degree of normalcy and a sense of community and still be able to keep people safe.”

In a statement to The Press Democrat last Friday afternoon, Mase said she understands the superintendents’ desire to find “middle ground” and that she would relay further information about the county’s COVID situation at a Board of Supervisors meeting this week.

But she also reiterated the need for the current restrictions.

“Hospitalizations in Sonoma County have increased 272 percent in the past two weeks alone,” she said in the statement. “They are experiencing extreme staffing shortages and are running out of beds. We need to do all that we can to support them over the next few weeks during this surge.”

She said the order focused on limiting large gatherings because that’s where a majority of cases are originating. County caseload data clearly shows it, Mase said.

“We have documented dozens of cases that have come directly from enclosed sporting events,” she added. “We felt we had to act quickly given what we were experiencing.”

She continued: “We love sports. But we needed to take these steps over the next four weeks to support our hospitals, protect our community and to support and protect the ability of our school children to continue to benefit from in-person instruction and take part in athletic competition. I look forward to discussing this more in the days to come.”

The current order will remain in place through Feb. 11, caps total attendance at indoor events at 50 people and 100 for outdoor events if social distancing is not possible. For high school sports, that number includes both participants and spectators.

“One thing that was clear was that we all felt like, for example, the 50-maximum limit for an indoor event was going to be very challenging for us given the number of individuals already on teams and the number of support staff just to make a game happen,” Anna Trunnell, superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools, said on Friday.

Some school districts are allowing limited attendance — usually a handful of parents of senior athletes, as long as the total number of people inside remains under 50 — but others have banned all spectators entirely.

“I don’t know entirely if the county understands that their proposal effectively eliminated spectators at most sporting events indoors,” Vanden Heuvel said.

At a press briefing Wednesday, Mase addressed some of these concerns, saying that since Dec. 1 there had been 34 sports-related cases, a figure that the county believes is likely higher. Most of those were tied to basketball games, she said, but they have also traced cases back to wrestling, volleyball and other sports.

So far this school year, many high school sports teams have been impacted by COVID-19 outbreaks, none more heavily than basketball teams since early December.

Schools around the county have also been heavily impacted in recent weeks by a deluge of cases among students and staff.

The superintendents stressed in their letter that they agree on the need to curb the current spike of COVID-19 cases, which are at the highest rates the county has seen since the start of the pandemic, but believe further discussion of the indoor limits is warranted. They said their intention is to give their students some sense of normalcy after nearly two years of interruptions.

The superintendents emphasized that sporting events and other gatherings would continue to follow California Department of Public Health Guidance, which includes diligent masking and regular testing, but urged that more spectators, specifically family members already in close contact with their students, to attend events.

They also argued that since the health order exempts gatherings for other aspects of daily life, such as places of worship and restaurants, and even other regular school activities like daily classes and recess, that their proposal is a “reasonable accommodation to request as it presents no objectively greater risk than those activities or facilities if masking and distancing is maintained.”

“There is a lot of moving parts here and we’re just asking for concession, given that in other large spaces like malls, etc., there isn’t a cap on the number of people in those spaces,” Trunnell said. “We’re not asking for that, but certainly looking for some middle ground.”

This is the first time that county superintendents have pushed back on any of Mase’s health orders, Vanden Heuvel said.

“We respect the job she has to do and we know it’s important,” he said. “We understand the ramifications. But it seems like we could do something that would allow there to be some spectators safely.”

Like every other Bay Area county, Sonoma County is currently seeing its highest spike in infections since the pandemic began, with positivity rates at a record high and hospitalizations nearing a record.

Sonoma, as of Friday, was the only county in the region, to have enacted tighter new restrictions on gatherings.

Some coaches around the county this week told The Press Democrat they’re looking to schedule games in neighboring counties to give parents an opportunity to watch their kids play.

In Marin, the county health department put forth similar restrictions on events at the start of the month, but later relaxed rules around attendance for youth sports. The county now allows for 50 spectators and/or two vaccinated family members of athletes to attend games.

While Marin County’s current case rate is currently lower than Sonoma County’s, superintendents wondered why similar measures can’t be taken here.

“These kids have gone through a ton,” Windsor Unified School District Superintendent Jeremy Decker said on Friday. “We’ve got to have some sense of normalcy for them — and sports, but also drama, band concerts — all these things are a part of really making students feeling connected, and you want your family there for those things. There’s a way to do this. There’s got to be a way to do this that isn’t essentially banning all fans from the arena.”

You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or gus.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @JustGusPD.

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