Small groups of kids, standing well-spaced in masks, running drills outdoors and using their own equipment: These are just a few of the guidelines issued by state health officials this week, allowing school-based, club and recreational teams to continue practicing under new rules while they wait for their seasons to begin.

The updated California Department of Public Health youth sports guidelines arrived alongside new waivers for in-person elementary school instruction. They issued a competition ban in line with the July 20 California Interscholastic Federation decision to delay all fall sports seasons to Dec. 14, pending any changes to state health directives.

“The new guidelines give school districts more freedom to create opportunities for student athletes while curbing the spread of COVID-19,” said Chris Fore, president of the California Coaches Association. “It brings folks in the private sector back into reality of what we need to adhere to, too.”

Kids that participate in sports don’t just improve their physical fitness; they also gain necessary social and emotional development sorely lacking during months of shelter-in-place. And, as most Bay Area schools gear up for remote learning extending into the foreseeable future, the lack of interaction among students has left many educators, coaches and parents concerned.

Monday’s guidelines answer some of these concerns by allowing sports practices to resume as long as students can maintain at least six feet of distance and can practice in a “stable cohort” that remains consistent over time.

For individual or naturally distanced sports like swimming, tennis and cross country, the guidelines may mean continued practicing as usual, in small groups. But for team-based contact sports like baseball, basketball,and soccer, the stricter rules allow only physical conditioning and distanced technical drilling: like dribbling or batting practice.

To many local club and recreational teams, these updates sound pretty similar to summer camp guidelines issued by health officials throughout the Bay Area in May.

Matt Durell, CEO of San Francisco-based Bay City Basketball, has run “socially distanced” youth basketball camps since June 15 under the city’s guidelines, bringing “pods” of 12 kids together for daily practices. The camp requires kids to wear masks and bring their own balls for individual outdoor drills.

Durell said he hopes that they can continue these practices under new guidelines into the fall in preparation for spring competitions.

“We’re going to do whatever the guidelines will allow us to keep kids playing,” Durell said.

Still, it’s unclear whether Bay Area school districts that have committed to fully remote instruction feel safe enough to meet in person for sports.

“We know from well-attended Town Halls and a robust response rate on the SFUSD Family Survey that families are very concerned about health and safety. SFUSD is planning to begin the fall semester in distance learning for all students,” said Laura Dudnick, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Unified School District. “We are still in the process of determining what is possible in terms of sports.”

In Oakland, school officials say the short-term risks of bringing kids to school, even for limited outdoor activity, aren’t worth it.

“Our campuses will remain closed,” said John Sasaki, an Oakland Unified School District spokesman. “With the high concerns among our families and our staff, we’re erring on the side of caution.”

For now, recreational and club teams seem most likely to take the risk.

Jordan Barchus, who has resumed the San Francisco Giarratano Baseball Camp for kids aged 6 to 13 since June, said that socially distanced sports seemed daunting at first, but proved manageable — and offered a big payoff for kids.

“Parents told me that their kids had spent three months in front of a screen,” Barchus said. “It’s challenging to enforce the rules, but kids were just absolutely ecstatic to be back outside with their friends.”

But state health department summer camp rules allowed scrimmaging within pods, which doesn’t seem possible under the new guidelines. Elizabeth Rappolt, president of the San Francisco Vikings soccer club, has also overseen camps all summer, and hopes to keep working with kids this fall. But she said she worries that running distanced technical drills won’t have the same positive effects as getting kids to work together as a team.

“With isolated drilling, you at least get to see your friends,” she said. “But without playing the game, we’re telling kids: You get to smell the ice cream, but you don’t get to eat it.”

Still, Rappolt said that the competition ban may have a silver lining. Removing costly tournaments and elite leagues could improve access to sports for underprivileged kids, she said, and refocus parents on what really matters: the physical and social benefits of sports.

“We have parents putting thousands of dollars into a race to nowhere,” Rappolt said. “You don’t need to travel to other cities to experience support and friendship. You can do it right here.”

Brett Simpson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: brett.simpson@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @brettvsimpson





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