Pending county approval, Occidental plans infrastructure to support potential return of athletic competition

Sign above the field in Jack Kemp stadium at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. Dominic Massimino/The Occidental

In a Dec. 1 statement, the Presidents’ Council of the SCIAC announced their unanimous decision not to hold competitions in Spring 2021 for sports that were canceled during the fall and winter seasons. As of Feb. 8, Occidental has made no announcement regarding a possible return of spring sports this semester. While LA County determines when Occidental and other institutions within the county can reopen, it does not govern SCIAC institutions outside county lines, such as the University of Redlands, California Lutheran University and Chapman University.

COVID-19 cases in both NELA and Los Angeles County climbed dramatically throughout December and January. In LA County, cases rose from an average of 14,409 new cases per day as of Dec. 1 to an average of 44,763 new cases per day in late December, according to the New York Times.

According to Sara Semal, Occidental’s senior director of student wellness and special advisor to the president on health and safety, the college is working to create the infrastructure necessary to bring sports back safely.

“Our current model, being able to test not just all of the people on campus twice a week, but the entire community of Oxy twice a week is huge,” Semal said. “Having that kind of access — we’re already starting to show that we can do this safely. I think that we have established a really good routine.”

While the college strategizes on how it be able to bring back sports safely, it must continue to abide by LA County regulations regarding how and when to do so, according to Semal.

“So much of it doesn’t matter how we feel,” Semal said. “If the county says we can open, we’ll open. That’s not the question. A lot of our planning is preparing for when the ‘go’ is given.”

According to Semal, Occidental plans to allow student athletes who participate in the testing protocol to utilize campus athletic facilities in the next phase of the college’s plan to gradually reopen campus. In order for that to happen, LA County must have fewer than seven new cases per 100,000 for at least two weeks.

But while LA County has begun to see a decrease in cases after its recent spike, Semal said the college still has a way to go before it can get back to business as usual.

“Everybody is kind of looking at it like, ‘Hey, we’re only at like 5,000 positives a day, we were at 20,000.’ But before that we were at 2,000. We need to be at like, 200,” Semal said. “Our idea of what is normal has to shift.”

According to Semal, having a plan to bring back sports safely is vital because the virus can have lasting side effects — even for young and fit student athletes.

“I do know a handful of athletes in my private practice that are really struggling eight months after getting the virus, for it to feel back to normal, to feel like they have the ability to repair,” Semal said. “Strong, young athletes that used to be able to climb mountains that could barely run around the block. That has a huge impact on not just your physical health, but your mental health as well.”

Though six of nine SCIAC institutions are located in LA County, SCIAC Executive Director Jennifer Dubow said colleges in the conference who are not restricted by their county guidelines may choose their own return-to-play plan.

“We will have a few schools that will be back on campus and I think something that’s been great is that all of our schools are supportive of, ‘Hey, if we can’t do it, we want to make sure we can support whoever can,’” Dubow said.

Since LA County’s comparatively strict regulations regarding return-to-play have made SCIAC programs some of the last to return to competition, Dubow said she has been focused on learning what she can from how other conferences and their directors have adjusted to new safety protocols.

“What do you do when the basketball coach calls a timeout and he takes his mask off to talk to kids and you’re like, ‘No that’s not good, that’s a violation’?” Dubow said. “We have to be talking about this with your staff and your coaches and your students so hopefully when we are back, maybe we will catch one or two instances that still can be handled.”

Athletes may notice changes to practices and competitions other than just the lack of spectators, Semal said, with the main challenge being how to limit contact between athletes as much as possible.

“I think that practices are likely going to be largely focused on conditioning and individual training, skill-building,” Semal said. “We’re going to want to minimize contact as much as possible. I just think about how we reserve space for our teams. We’re going to have to think about, ‘How do we do strength training in a small weight room? What does that look like?’”

In addition to spacing, Dubow said she envisions athletes wearing masks whenever they are not competing.

According to JP Flores (senior), a captain on Occidental’s men’s baseball team and co-president of Occidental’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), the main focus in the college’s plan should be the safety of student athletes.

“I hope the protocols they have in place will be safe. I really hope that they maybe put equipment outside, that they are very intentional about how they open these facilities,” Flores said.

On top of the existing testing program the college has in place, Semal said that a return to sports might also include increased testing for athletes, perhaps utilizing a new rapid test from healthcare company Abbott Laboratories that can give results in minutes.

“If we are able to train people how to administer it on themselves that might be a good resource just to ensure that everybody is negative going into a game,” Semal said. “I get more worried about competitions with other schools because we don’t have control over other schools and what their policies and practices and procedures look like.”

Though the college continues to develop its strategy for bringing some sports back this spring, Flores said many athletes — particularly seniors — have struggled to train under the threat of an impending cancellation.

“A lot of people are resigned. They feel isolated, they would feel weird coming back to sports, but it’s that glimmer of hope, the fact that it hasn’t been canceled yet,” Flores said. “The fat lady isn’t singing yet.”