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New testing guidance allows indoor athletes to compete maskless
athlete testing
High school students in Turlock began COVID testing this week so that they can wrestle and play basketball safely this winter (Photo courtesy of TUSD).

Athletes playing sports indoors this winter will be spared from wearing a mask while competing thanks to robust COVID-19 testing measures in place at Turlock Unified School District. 

Stanislaus County Public Health Services on Thursday released updated guidance for high-intensity indoor sports, like basketball, to allow for the removal of masks during active play. In place of masks, athletes who choose to forgo a face covering are required to instead be tested three times per week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Though the county recently rescinded its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated community members, Public Health Officer Julie Vaishampayan stated in a letter to school superintendents that Stanislaus County is currently experiencing high community transmission, per the Centers for Disease Control.

“This level of transmission requires increased mitigation activities to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and allow Stanislaus County to continue along the path of reduced restrictions during the pandemic...Multiple Counties in California have moved to a testing strategy for high intensity indoor activities,” Vaishampayan said. “Having different mitigation strategies in place during competitions is not an effective strategy for protecting students from COVID-19.”

Vaishampayan stated that in order to maintain effective mitigation in light of the varying strategies, schools can consider frequent testing as an alternative to universal masking, though students must still wear masks when not actively engaged in their sport. This will offer continued protection for players, she said, and when the level of transmission is no longer high, the frequency of testing will be re-evaluated.

An average of 133 cases of COVID-19 are being recorded per day in Stanislaus County, a 17% decrease from two weeks ago according to county data. Stanislaus County is considered high-risk for unvaccinated community members, with 80% of hospitalizations consisting of patients who are not fully vaccinated. 

Vaishampayan said the California Department of Public Health is aware of the county’s alternative mitigation methods for indoor sports, but should CDPH release K-12 sports guidelines the guidance could be reevaluated or rescinded. 

For high-intensity indoor youth athletic programs, participants in Stanislaus County must do the following: Wear a mask at all times, including during practice, scrimmages, and game play (no testing requirements) or perform antigen testing three times weekly (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) of all individuals, including those who are fully vaccinated. Testing must be separated by at least one day. 

Participants must also participate in re-entry testing, regardless of vaccine status, to be performed 24 hours prior to entering an event, competition, or tournament where three or more teams are present. Negative results are required to participate in the event, competition, or tournament and this applies to teams from within and outside of Stanislaus County. 

At TUSD, students participating in basketball and wrestling began testing this week for their respective sports. Wrestling was already required to test for matches, as masks can pose a choking hazard during competition. 

Though the new guidance does allow flexibility for student athletes, CDPH guidance on modified quarantine hasn’t changed, the District said in a message to families. Students who are exposed to a positive case while unmasked are not eligible for in-school testing, but must quarantine at home for seven days. With a negative test on days five through seven, students can return to school and play on day eight. 

“We have been advocating to the State for several weeks on this issue and are excited for the opportunity this testing cadence presents to remove masks during active play while still protecting health and safety,” TUSD said.