This week, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) pushed back the start of high school sports until December 2020 or January 2021. With most schools across the state required to remain fully online until their counties are removed from the state's monitoring list, that decision might help to better align the high school sports season with the start of the in-person school year.
But there's still no guidance on what is—or isn't—allowed when it comes to recreational youth sports. In fact, if anything, the confusion is just increasing. In June, a number of counties used California's guidance on day camps to reopen (PDF) practices in mid-June. But a few weeks later, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) clarified (PDF) that recreational team sports are not covered under these guidelines, and thousands of parents were given the news that their kids' sports practices had—once again—been cancelled.
The CDPH has issued guidelines for shopping centers, restaurants, casinos, movie theaters, wineries, gyms, and even cardrooms and racetracks. But so far, there's no guidance on youth sports—nor is there any information on when such guidance will be available.
This might seem like a small sacrifice for families to make. After all, millions of Americans have sacrificed much more. Over 140,000 Americans have died from the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions have lost their livelihoods. And it may seem strange to be up in arms about youth sports when we still aren't sure whether or how kids can go back to school in the fall.
Long-term isolation has negative impacts on kids' physical health, their mental health, and their social development—with impacts potentially lasting for years.Share on Twitter
But our kids have now been cooped up at home for four months. For a 7-year-old, that's five percent of his or her entire life. For parents, it can seem even longer. We have growing evidence that this long-term isolation has negative impacts on kids' physical health, their mental health, and their social development—with impacts potentially lasting for years.
Youth sports can help to offset many of these negative impacts, by giving kids the chance to get out of the house, exercise, and see friends.
More and more organizations are starting to release rankings for which activities are more or less risky for virus transmission, and there's a pretty wide range of risk for sports. The Texas Medical Association, for example, ranks playing tennis as low-risk, playing golf as low-moderate risk, and playing basketball or football as moderate-high risk. To put that in perspective, the moderate-high risk category also includes traveling by plane (which has always been allowed), and hugging or shaking hands with a friend.
Of course, there's no way to guarantee that youth sports will be completely safe. As with any activity where people are near each other, there will always be some increased risk of transmission. So it's important that families—and coaches—who don't feel comfortable returning to sports, don't feel pressured to do so. But that potential risk has to be balanced against the potentially large benefits of allowing kids to get fresh air, exercise, and social interaction.
And, in keeping with the guidance (PDF) for day camps, team practices can and should be conducted in a way that further lowers the risk—for example, by ensuring sick players and staff stay home, by practicing in small and consistent groups, and by limiting parent spectators. In other words, youth sports could maintain some level of physical distancing, while avoiding some of the worst negative impacts of social distancing.
The CDPH could prioritize the development of guidelines that would allow youth sports to reopen safely. We owe it to our kids.
Shanthi Nataraj is director, Labor and Workforce Development Program, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
This commentary originally appeared on The Orange County Register on July 22, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.