As schools begin to reopen, youth sports in San Francisco look to boost participation rates after nearly dropping 20% during the pandemic. <ins>(Courtesy Joe Howarth)</ins>

As schools begin to reopen, youth sports in San Francisco look to boost participation rates after nearly dropping 20% during the pandemic. (Courtesy Joe Howarth)

SF athletes anticipate a return to playing fields, as well as classrooms

By Nick Zeller-Singh

Special to The Examiner

As classrooms begin to reopen Aug. 16, San Francisco schools hope to boost participation in youth sports, which fell nearly 20 percent in 2020, according to district figures.

Although sports have slowly returned in 2021, public and private schools will use what they learned during the pandemic to help inform what student-athletes can expect this semester.

“Once our kids are fully engaged, back on campus, and have the opportunities they’ve always had within our schools, I expect participation numbers to go back up to where they were prior to the pandemic,” said Pat Cruikshank, director of athletics at North Coast Section, an association of Bay Area school leagues.

Even though school sports look to return to normal, tough issues that have arisen with the pandemic remain of concern.

During the COVID lockdown, private club sports grew in popularity, raising the inequality gap between families with different economic realities. Before the pandemic, black youth were the most active sports participants, averaging 12.3 hours a week, while white youth participated an average of 11.6 hours, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Aspen Institute.

During the pandemic, white youth participated in sports an average of 7.9 hours a week, while black youth participated for an average of 6.7 hours.

The same data shows that children in households earning more than $100,000 annually played two more hours per week than children from families making an average of $50,000 annually.

Cruikshank noticed that club sports were more abundant in higher-income neighborhoods.

While the inequality gap rose, children’s mental health dwindled. Although every child fought through adversity, one age group led to high anxiety and depression rates.

“In our area, we have not had a whole lot of sports at the high school level, and those are your 15- to 18-year-old kids,” Cruikshank said. “Obviously, it has impacted those kids greatly, and those kids who don’t have access to club sports and were not able to go out and play during that time, they were the ones that were hit the hardest.”

After losing 65% of time spent in their sport, 38% of high school girls and 35% of boys built up high levels of anxiety or depression, the Aspen report shows.

Since participation numbers fell, San Francisco and the North Coast Section governing body are hoping to increase participation in the fall.

According to Cruikshank, the NCS has put new guidelines in place, including allowing schools to determine when sports can return. That flexibility will help schools run programs to give kids the ability to get a sense of normalcy.

“Just the opportunity to be with their friends, exercise — and making sure that our kids are eating right — will help with that isolation and depression a lot of our kids have gone through,” Cruikshank said.

Eliminating the inequality gap in youth sports is another NCS goal.

“Our schools and communities need to look at what they are offering and if there are any other things out there that they can do for our kids, As we get back into it and we see what our students need. There are things out there that we can do to help close that gap down and give everyone the same opportunities,” Cruikshank said.

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