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Bull Run Elementary School hosted SYA baseball in the spring with no spectators.

Being part of the bigger whole. Socialization skills. Learning to respect a coach and to apply the skills being taught. All of these are positives of youth sports, President of the South County/Springfield Youth Club (SYC) Board of Directors Chris Spera said, but their importance has been weighed down under the shadow of COVID-19 for the last four youth sport seasons.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak put a fork in the normalcy of grade schoolers’ lives. Along with school — which switched to an online format across Fairfax County  — in-person youth sports were also put on hold. Southwestern Youth Association (SYA), McLean Youth Association (MYA) and SYC were among Northern Virginia youth sports organizations that shut down in spring of 2020.

Participation

Coming out of the spring and into summer 2020, participation remained sparse, but activity existed in organizations that allowed for it. In SYC, Spera said that they had no gym access in the summer. This meant SYC’s recreational summer basketball league didn’t run, but SYC Travel Soccer did virtual workouts in small pockets to avoid in-person contact.

Participation began increasing in fall 2020 but it varied, as risk-tolerance levels among parents was different from individual to individual. SYA achieved 61% of its fall 2019 participation numbers, President of the SYA Board of Directors Jeff Stein said, while in SYC, there were slight adjustments: Recreational programs could run drills and practices but not competitions or games. SYC Travel Soccer played in the fall, but field access was given but under “fairly tight restrictions,” said Spera.

In MYA, Board of Directors Vice President Steve Trembler said outdoor sports, like lacrosse and soccer, started play in August 2020 — instead of later in the fall — so they could get a jump on the colder weather.

As COVID-19 cases began to rise again in winter 2020-21, Stein said participation in SYA dipped to 54% of what it was in winter 2019-20. Cheerleading, wrestling and basketball were the only active sports in SYA’s 2020-21 winter season. In SYC, closed gyms didn’t allow for its basketball season, but relaxed outdoor regulations allowed for outdoor sports without spectators in the winter.

In spring 2021, participation increased to as close to pre-pandemic levels as any COVID-19-stricken season across all three organizations. SYC’s spring 2021 participation was “basically the same participation as the spring of ’19,” Spera said, while Stein said SYA’s participation was 83% of what it was in the spring two years ago. When Trembler, head coach of MYA soccer, basketball and flag football teams, sent out messages to his players’ parents, he said “probably 75% of the people played and 25% sat out, not exact, but probably close.”

Looking ahead, Stein said he expects vaccines to allow for “close to 100%” of what participation was in fall of 2019 for this upcoming fall. A May 28 mandate from Gov. Ralph Northam (D) appears to open up spectator guidelines in youth sports with relaxed mandates, and likely, increased participation.

Spectating and Capacity

Despite guidelines from the Fairfax County Health Department that there was either limited or banned spectators for youth sporting events depending on the juncture of the pandemic, there were workarounds. Organizations had permits to the field they were playing on, not the surrounding areas.

“For example,” Spera said, “At South Run, there’s lots of different fields, but that’s a public park. There’s trails and walkways and hillsides that are not part of our permit. So, if we get a permit for South Run Number 4 [Field], we can have rules about [spectators] putting chairs on the perimeter of the field, but if they’re going to sit on the hillside that’s adjacent to that field, that’s not on our permit and we can’t control it.”

The same predicament existed at high school stadiums. Spera said at Hayfield High School — where SYC gets priority for helping fund the implementation of synthetic turf at its outdoor rectangular fields — the organization’s permit only applied on the field and not on the bleachers, where the spectators would congregate anyway. This rendered the spectator guidelines ineffective, which were futile regarding anything other than the field itself.

During the winter, when spectating was prohibited indoors, Trembler said he utilized a system to help parents watch their sons’ basketball games. MYA only allowed eight adults in the gym per game: two coaches, a scorekeeper/clock manager and a temperature checker for each team.

“Every week, I would send out the schedule for the games and say, ‘Sign up for what you want to do,’” Trembler said. “Invariably it was always the same parents who wanted to do [temperature checker and scorekeeper], but every once in a while there’d be new ones.”

It was unfortunate, Trembler said, that guidelines prohibiting more than one spectator per kid existed because even if a fully vaccinated grandparent was in town and wanted to watch their grandson, it wasn’t allowed. Also, the original spectating protocol in MYA stated the lone parent had to sit in the parking lot, which was a headache for most parents, Trembler said, because they sign their kids up to play in part because of the joy they get watching them. In MYA, however, loopholes that paralleled SYC were conjured up.

“A lot of the time, the parents would stand outside the field’s fences,” Trembler said. “The sport lost its control, right, if you stood out on the sidewalk. Sports can’t control the sidewalk, they can only control the fields.”

In SYA, Stein said indoor facilities had limited spectator attendance, as required by Fairfax County’s health guidelines, while outdoor sports restricted spectators to “immediate family members” who needed to be away from the field and socially distanced from other spectators. All outdoor facilities had the same spectator guidelines in place, Stein said.

The transition back to normalcy in spring 2021, as many parents have become fully vaccinated from COVID-19, has caused a disconnect in Fairfax County’s spectator guidelines. Fairfax County has lagged behind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) updated recommendation regarding not needing face coverings at outdoor events if fully vaccinated, Trembler said.

“Most of these parents sitting out in this heat are saying, ‘Look, I’m vaccinated, I don’t care what MYS (McLean Youth Sports) says, CDC says I can sit out here in my lawn chair without a mask on so that’s that I’m going to do,’” Trembler said. “And that’s not an argument I am willing to get into with a parent. I’m not there to fight the parents about whether they’re vaccinated and whether they want to wear a mask.”

Player Safety Guidelines

Spectator guidelines was one battle, but the actual participants in the sports received equal, if not more, attention. It all started with what the world has grown plenty accustomed to over the last 14 months: masks.

In short, masks were required among all participants in Fairfax County youth sports during the indoor activities of winter 2020-21; mask requirements relaxed in spring 2021 — the choice was given for each participant to wear a mask when on the field but was required on the sideline. The spacing on said sideline between each player, Trembler said, was four feet instead of six on his soccer team because he couldn’t fit the sheer number of players — 20 kids — all on the sideline.

Trembler said the protocol in soccer was that the players had to wear their masks from when they got out of their car to when they walked to the field. The players, Trembler said, had to sit on the sideline with masks on, and when it was their turn to be subbed in, they put their mask in their bag and ran onto the field — when they came off the field, they sat behind their bag again.

Masks were also required for coaches, Stein said, and for players when they were within six feet of each other. Stein said SYA required each participating player to complete a COVID-19 “check-in form” prior to every practice and game on top of its mask mandate. 

Even though they allowed sports to be played during the pandemic, masks were also, ironically, a hindrance to play with. Trembler recounted situations in winter basketball where teams would get easy points when a player’s mask became undone.

“With some of these kids, the masks don’t quite fit properly,” Trembler said. “They get bonked and all of a sudden the mask is over their eyes, and they’ll stop playing to fix their masks, and it’ll be like a turnover and it goes the other way. As a coach, you’re like, ‘Fix your mask with one hand, keep the ball with the other,’ type thing.”

In SYC, Spera said the organization assembled a “Return to Play Committee,” which was made up of SYC league commissioners and members of its board of directors. The committee followed what came from the CDC and the state to inform decisions regarding player safety protocols.

Spera said a player couldn’t just throw its stuff in a common pile with the team, and that coaches tried to keep everyone’s stuff spread out. He said there was also no sharing of food, water bottles or equipment. At every practice or event, there was hand disinfectant and spray disinfectant for the kids to use to spray the equipment or balls they were using.

Despite MYA’s rules, Trembler said it was hard to contain his players on the sideline. Before updated guidelines allowed for two coaches on the sideline, Trembler said he was doing double duty.

“I spent equal time coaching the sideline as I did coaching the game,” Trembler said. “And, you know, kids want to sit and talk. You try to get a 9-year-old to sit still on the sideline with a mask on and not go hang out with his buddy while they’re on the sideline together.”

In SYA, Stein said the league kept track of its player’s safety in an unconventional way. To support the league wide COVID-19 check-in form, SYA got help from technology.

“[SYA participants signed up] with an app for their phone that facilitated the collection and record keeping for the [COVID-19] check-in forms,” Stein said. “As we have many different sports, we made sure that sports were following the same protocols, with obvious adjustments for their unique situations.”

Regarding the comfortability of having kids participate during the pandemic with the subsequent guidelines, Stein and Trembler said they were both comfortable — Trembler, father of 4, was “absolutely 100% comfortable” — while Spera chose not to answer, as his kids are both grown, 26 and 28, respectively. Stein’s kids have also aged out of SYA, but he said he’s looking forward to watching his grandchildren in the near future.

SYA, Stein said, had over 6,000 participants in the fall, winter and spring seasons combined and had no incidents of infections resulting from sports participation. Stein also participates in an adult soccer league that began play in fall 2020 which he said has yet to experience an instance of COVID-19.

“I thought that the value of getting out there and playing sports, socializing, getting outdoor and indoor exercise and activity, [while] weighing the science behind how this affects children, you know, it’s very mild,” Trembler said. “I was not afraid whatsoever about being out there. In fact, I thought it’d be detrimental to my children if they weren’t … I want them to be out playing sports [and] off their computers as much as they possibly can.”

What was learned

Many revealing lessons have come out of youth sports participation during COVID-19. Spera said some of which have been a rude awakening to parents who look at their 8-year-old and think, “My kid is going to be the next Diego Maradona.”

Spera’s sister lives in Northern Italy, and he said she told him that she could basically “flip a coin” if someone she knew over the age of 60 died of COVID-19. He said learning this grounded him in the totality of what was going on outside the bubble of youth sports.

“What I hope is [COVID-19] really gave people some perspective,” Spera said. “Youth sports are, I think, important, or else I wouldn’t be a volunteer in them for as long as I have. But they’re important in the proper context … let’s just keep it in its proper place, let’s get everyone healthy first.”

Spera said he also wished SYC’s refund policy in spring 2020 took less time — the program needed to develop different refund policies for recreational and travel soccer, as travel soccer is a year-long sport. But in the end, he said, SYC delivered a “pretty well received” refund policy.

Trembler said it was really eye-opening how appreciative parents were of coaches during the pandemic. While MYA had healthy participation numbers among the players, coaches were at a shortage, and Trembler took on eight teams in fall 2020 alone: three soccer, four basketball and a flag football team.

Trembler said parents would drive further to get to locations due to the limited space locally, for example, driving out to Dulles if they had to. Also, he said the parents showed support by how he’s never seen so many at pickup from practice standing in parking lots, walking around fields — way off the main field — just to be outside. He said he used to think youth sports were something that was just “nice to have,” but that it changed to a “need to have” for both kids and parents during the pandemic when they realized the old adage: “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

“I guess what I’ve found is [that] sports needs to be somewhat convenient when everything’s normal, but when it’s not normal, people don’t mind the inconvenience,” Trembler said. “[Parents will] go a little further to make sure their kids go outside, and I think what I learned is that’s very important.”

New sports, adaptation and a look to the future

As gym space was severely limited by Fairfax County, and at times prohibited, MYA coaches had to get extra creative with practice space, and Trembler did exactly that. He said he ran “quite a few” practices from his cul-de-sac with his own basketball hoop because his team couldn’t get gym space.

In SYC, lack of gym space in the winter prompted the organization to go in a trailblazing direction: starting brand new sports. The program, Spera said, launched winter flag football — where kids “just showed up and got divided into teams,” track and field and a “very successful” kickball league that gained about 150 participants. Spera said SYC was able to serve 600-700 kids just by making stuff up which he believes was the result of “a lot of pent-up demand” for youth sports.

“I think that maybe some of the stuff we came up [with] in the winter — I could see people wanting to play kickball again,” Spera said. “I guess there’s possibilities that [kickball, pickup football and track and field] will survive, they came out [of COVID-19] kind of out of desperation … but if there’s a critical mass that wants to do them again, we’ll offer them.”

Overall, Trembler said he was upset that there were still 25% of his players that didn’t participate amid COVID-19, but he said he understood and that it was their call. He jokingly told his players about the benefit of playing three pandemic-riddled seasons with a mask on, as much of an inconvenience they’ve been on the field and court.

“I’ll say this,” Trembler said. “People go to Denver to train with masks, high-altitude training, mask training to get their lungs better, so maybe I’m going to guess these kids are going to be in better cardio shape because they have to play these sports with masks on. I keep reminding them, ‘Once these masks are lifted, you’re going to find that your lungs are that much stronger.’”

Stein said he’s proud of how the SYA coordinators and coaches came together and managed to put on some quality sports programming in spite of the pandemic’s challenges. He said he’s fortunate of the passionate volunteers who are willing to go the extra mile for the community’s children.

“I am truly excited for the future of SYA,” Stein said. 

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