SAN JOSE — Santa Clara County has launched an investigation into a complaint alleging San Jose State athletic department employees are being forced to work in the office during the pandemic, county executive Dr. Jeffrey Smith told the Bay Area News Group on Thursday.
It marks the third time the school athletic department has come under scrutiny for its approach to county directives intended to help stop the transmission of COVID-19.
“At this point, we need to find out what is going on,” said Smith, adding that enforcement officers planned to visit the campus.
San Jose State officials said in a statement Thursday evening that they were unaware of a current investigation. The statement added that school officials contacted Santa Clara County Code Enforcement division after this news organization’s inquiry to address the questions.
San Jose State athletics administrators and staff returned to their offices on Monday although the university issued two recent notices that four cases of COVID-19 involved individuals who had visited the school’s sports department buildings.
A San Jose State spokesman did not say how many of the department’s 140 employees had been asked to return to their campus offices. But in a Jan. 9 email seen by this news organization, athletic director Marie Tuite wrote the return date for “all staff” was Feb. 1.
In an email dated Jan. 30, Tuite reminded department employees to complete a COVID-19 return to work document.
Tuite declined to comment through the school’s spokesman.
The spokesman said everyone was needed on campus because teams have returned with the loosening of county restrictions for college and professional sports. About 10 SJSU teams are in season or about to start their seasons.
The first on-campus athletics event is scheduled for Friday when the women’s volleyball team plays host to Boise State at 1 p.m. at Yoshihiro Uchida Hall. Most of the team schedules have not been completed yet.
“Athletics operations follow all safety precautions as outlined in Santa Clara County and state of California COVID-19 related directives and guidelines applicable to intercollegiate athletics and higher education,” the SJSU statement read.
The Santa Clara County Health Department has required county businesses to maximize remote work.
“The general direction is if you can work from home you should work from home,” Smith said. “Nobody should be forced to come into work.”
San Jose State athletic administrators previously have been at odds with county public health guidelines.
In October, county officials criticized the school when it relocated the football team to Humboldt State for 1 ½ weeks to prepare for the season opener. At the time, county officials did not permit contact sports.
In December, the team returned from Las Vegas to San Jose for a week before departing to Tucson to play in the Arizona Bowl. At the time the county had issued a 10-day quarantine for anyone traveling to the area from beyond 150 miles, leading to criticism from Smith. The Spartans ended up with 13 confirmed coronavirus cases after they returned from Las Vegas.
“Obviously with the first two times, there was frustration,” Smith said. “We thought we had things worked out. I hope the complaints being investigated are found to be untrue. But if they are proven, we’ll go through another problem.”
In the past week, the school reported four cases potentially involving athletics in internal memos sent to the campus community from the school’s director of Environmental Health and Safety. The memos, obtained by the Bay Area News Group, do not identify any individuals by name. It is not clear whether any of the four cases involve athletes or athletic department employees.
A school spokesman declined to say who was involved, citing the Division of Occupational Safety and Health of California regulations.
According to one of the internal memos, a positive case involved someone who visited Uchida Hall a week ago. The athletics department shares Uchida Hall with the kinesiology department, the Health Science department and the school’s judo program.
Another case involved someone who visited the East Fieldhouse last week. The men’s and women’s soccer teams, the baseball and softball teams and the women’s tennis team use the building, according to the university.
A second memo reported two separate cases involving individuals who visited the East Fieldhouse. In one case, the person also visited the school’s football stadium and one of the campus student dormitories, the memo reported.
The school’s website on Thursday listed 31 confirmed cases in the past two weeks. All but two of the cases involved students living on and off the campus. The website does not provide any specifics about the cases.
Since March, San Jose State has reported 182 cases, according to the website.
A Bay Area News Group survey found many California schools have not allowed athletic department employees to work on campus as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to vex public health officials.
Santa Clara University and Stanford, the two other major colleges in Santa Clara County, are keeping most employees out of the office, representatives from each school said.
A Stanford official said that even staff who perform essential functions for the athletes, teams, events and facilities work remotely when possible. UC Berkeley has a similar policy, a school spokesman said.
The California State University system does not have a specific policy for handling athletic department employees’ returns, said Michael Uhlenkamp, senior director of public affairs. Instead, the 23 campuses, including San Jose State, have the authority to develop their own plans, “in which athletics were considered,” Uhlenkamp said.
According to a school website, San Jose State is in Phase 2 of its general plan to return to campus. However, Phase 2 encourages “telework” and says most instruction should be performed online or virtual.
Officials at Sacramento State, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Northridge and Chico State said almost all of their athletic department employees work remotely. Fresno State’s administrators and select staff are working in the office. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo also has brought back most of its athletic department employees because of the upcoming seasons, a school official said. He added that temperature checks and brief questions about symptoms are performed daily.