How the WIAA is planning for the return of high school sports: ‘It’s even more like shooting a target in the dark right now.’

When in-person learning was first shut down temporarily in March, before state officials eventually shut down schools through June 19, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association created contingency plans for what a possible condensed spring high school sports season might look like. 

Now, as it awaits further guidance from state health officials, the association is doing the same for the fall as schools grapple with the unknowns.

“The fall planning is basically what we did in the spring, but on steroids,” WIAA assistant executive director Andy Barnes said. 

Planning is happening twofold. The association said it will release a return-to-play guidance that is similar to the NFHS document released on May 19, but regionally-specific, within the “next week or so.” Similarly, contingency planning committees have been formed around each of the fall sports and will begin to meet next week and will outline the different ways for each sport to return.

SBLive Washington reporter Andy Buhler spoke with Barnes Wednesday about how the association sees sports returning, what it is working on at the moment and what to expect in the coming weeks and months. 

(Editor’s note: this conversation has been lightly edited for clarity)

SBLive: So what’s keeping you busiest right now? What are you involved in? [WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman] said you guys are working eight days a week. 

Andy Barnes: Yeah, pretty much. Probably the biggest thing is we’ve just been plugging away and trying to plan for the fall. Our fall contingency planning is kind of the big focus right now. And so the NFHS came out with a guidance document for each sport, in the different phases and what their recommendations are for the medical aspects of it, what sports are higher and lower risk. So we’re kind of going through that document and overlaying it with WIAA policies. And then we’re making sure that it fits in with the governor’s phases, and then that the Department of Health sees it from their perspective.

So we’re still waiting to hear back from the Department of Health before we send it out, but we’re hoping to have something out here in the next week or so, so that the membership can have an idea so they can start planning what that looks like. 

Then each one of the fall sports has a contingency planning committee that’s going to start meeting here next week to talk about what we can do for each one of the sports and each one of the phases, what that means for state tournaments. We’re looking at what if we need to make any adjustments to the to the seasons, whether we start them earlier to get ahead of the potential flu season in the fall, winter time, or if we need to start the season a little later to give more time in the summer for people to plan ahead, so that’s kind of the big planning that will start next week with those committees and we’re hoping to have everything kind of finalized within hopefully no later than the end of June with some preliminary plans, and then sometime in July, we would be able to say, ‘OK, this is exactly what it’s gonna look like’ so we can let people know for sure.

SBLive: So each sport has kind of a task force that’s working at outlining what a return might look like? I would imagine all of those are dependent on what phase different parts of the state are in, what the Department of Health says and where different pockets of the state are at come August.

Andy Barnes: That’s exactly right. We had the first conversation with the (WIAA Executive Board) yesterday, preliminarily, just to throw out some options. And then this weekend, they have a meeting on June 7, where they’re going to kind of prioritize their thoughts with it, but more or less, the initial feedback that we’re getting is ‘hey, we want to do everything we can to get started again to get kids back involved with athletics and activities.’

We can’t wait for everybody to be back open in phase four. If the metro areas like Tacoma and Seattle are not as far ahead as some of the other counties, we need to get counties back and get schools back in. So we’re basically saying within each county, if those schools are ready to go and get kids participating, then we need to do that. We can’t wait for everybody to be on the same page because that may or may not happen.

SBLive: Are the findings in each of these different sports-specific committees going to be released in the WIAA’s ‘return to play’ guidance that you said will come out next week, or is that separate?

Andy Barnes: It would basically be in conjunction with it. So the document that we’re sending out, or hoping to send out will be more of a, like a 30,000-foot approach. So we’ll have, ‘OK, in phase one. This is what this looks like. And here are the sports that have been identified as low, moderate and high risk.’ And that document is already public from the NFHS side.

SBLive: So how similar is it going to be to that document? Is it going to be regionally specific?

Andy Barnes: It’s going to be very similar. We’re basically just modifying it so that its got some markings on it. It’s got more of our language but, more or less, it’s gonna be almost exactly the same. It will have very few differences because we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel when we saw that document.

So that one will be out there. And then for me specifically, I will have football and swimming. With my swimming group, we will develop ‘OK, what does the state championship look like? In all of the different phases?’ And we’re looking at all aspects of ‘OK, what does it look like from the travel aspect? Can schools put X amount of kids on a bus? Or do they need to do multiple buses so they don’t have tons of kids together? What does it look like from tickets? Are we doing online tickets? Are we selling programs? Are we making our locker rooms available as they’re social distancing? Down on the pool are we using every other lane?’

Those are all of the different types of things that we’re going to be looking at so that it falls in line with what the State Department of Health is suggesting and within what our sports medicine groups are advising. We’re going to do that for every single fall sport and then we would have a document that’s sports specific that’s in conjunction with the one that talks about everything.

SBLive: When I spoke to (WIAA Executive Director Mick) Hoffman last month, he said that at that point, as you guys were making your initial contingency plans and in that really early stage that “everything was on the table.” As far as just the different ways that a return to sports might look like, is that still applicable? Has anything been ruled out like swapping seasons or swapping sports? Is there anything that has been completely ruled out?

Andy Barnes: I think the only thing, and I don’t want to say it’s 100% completely ruled out, but the feedback that we’re getting from the membership is that it would be really difficult and would put a lot of pressure on schools if we started switching seasons around. Just because of the impact that that has. And for example, if you’re talking about moving a sport from the fall to the spring, where now you’ve impacted all of those kids and what does that look like for the kids who play multiple sports? What happens if a spring sport, which those kids have already lost their season right now, what if we move into the fall and the fall season gets wiped out? Well, now those sports will have been wiped out twice and you can’t move it another time after that. So I think that is the last option at this point as far as the feedback we’ve been getting.

SBLive: Where does the financial side come into play? Football for most schools is the largest moneymaker. Is it being evaluated what that might look like? And whether or not schools could really even afford to have an entire football season or a portion of a football season without fans?

Andy Barnes: Yeah, the financial piece is huge, not only from the member school side, but from the state association side. We’re looking at it from the state association side, ‘What do state tournaments look like? What if we don’t have a full state tournament series? What does it look like if we have state tournaments, but we don’t have fans? What does it look like if we’re back to normal?’

Even if everything is opened up, I think the belief is that people are going to be itching to get back out there and be a part of sports and so we might see roughly what we would normally see attendance wise, but there also might be some places where people are just like, ‘hey, we’re still not ready to go be out in public and do those sorts of things.’ So we’re trying to project what that would look like.

And obviously football … is a big money generator for the association. There’s a lot of costs that go into state tournaments, there’s a lot of costs that go into just the regular season for schools. So the financial piece is going to be considered with all of those contingency planning groups, because we have to know what that looks like. We don’t want to rule anything out right away, but we need to know ‘hey, what is this going to cost if we do this for this sport?’ And it’s probably not going to be the same because some sports cost more than others. And we don’t want to have one sport hold another one back. So if it’s a situation where we can’t afford to do football without fans, but we can afford to do another sport without fans, we’re gonna do that other sport because it’s not fair for football to drive everything just because it may cost the most.

SBLive: I hate to play devil’s advocate, but imagining a world where there’s no fall sports championships, what would the ramifications of something like that be for the WIAA?

Andy Barnes: It would be a huge impact. That’s something the board has tentatively looked at and is going to take a deeper dive into this weekend. But if there were no fall sports, you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars to the associations’ budget that has to be considered when we do this. Now we’re going to do everything we can to to have some sort of opportunity and it may be anywhere from just doing a regular season and not a postseason. Or doing a postseason that’s only available to, let’s say, a third of the state because everybody’s not open at that point. But we’re looking at every single scenario.

Much like Mick said, every option is on the table. Whether that means we are in our traditional state sites, or we’re in different ones, because we have to split up the tournaments, because we can’t have large gatherings. And it’s hard to give specifics at this point because one, things are changing, and they’re starting to open up and, and so we’re kind of predicting the future. And as you know, with planning sports and sporting events, it’s really hard to know what this is going to look like. I think we’re getting closer and I think with the contingency planning groups, we’ll have a better idea of what that might look like. But for now, we’re just kind of guessing and doing our best with the information that we have.

SBLive: I know the goalposts continue to move and just like you guys were doing contingency plans for a potential spring season before school was canceled, it sounds like you are reassessing. 

Andy Barnes: Yeah. The fall planning is basically what we did in the spring, but on steroids. It’s just to that much more of a degree. We were hopeful that we would be able to get back and obviously, that was wiped out pretty quick. But we had laid out some plans if we’re back by this date, what would that look like? For the fall, it’s even more of a shooting target in the dark right now, but we’re gonna do everything we can to at least give schools and give communities some options because we feel like they’re itching for that. They need that you know. Just being in meetings and talking to people there, we’re just hearing that the kids are really struggling right now because they’re used to be participating in state championships last week and out there with their friends and not having a graduation. And it’s just been devastating.

SBLive: I heard some talk about considering doing a mini spring season in August or mid September to give spring athletes who had their seasons canceled an opportunity to compete. Is there any truth to that?

Andy Barnes: That’s one of the options that’s being discussed. Is there an opportunity to play a spring sports season at the beginning of August? And see what that would look like. Obviously, it’s a tight timeline if you’re starting the fall season during its regular window, but we’re looking at that as a possibility.

If there’s a way to give those kids kind of a redo on their season, we’ll do everything we can. It’s one of the options that’s available. We’ll probably have better direction after the board meets on Sunday. And we’re planning to send that out to the schools once we have kind of some better ideas on that.

SBLive: If all was well and normal, you would be discussing the rental agreement for state football championships. Has that timeline stayed on par where it normally would be without the shutdown? Are you guys having those conversations and have any rental agreements been made?

Andy Barnes: We really haven’t done anything specifically on that front with everything that’s been going on. I think it’s going to be part of the planning that if we are able to play football, and whatever the season looks like, we’re going to have to look at facility availability. We’re still continuing to have conversations with the larger venues to see if there’s opportunities there. Like CenturyLink, or Husky Stadium, but with everything going on, we really haven’t had the ability to kind of focus in on that specifically. So in a normal world, I think we would probably like to have that settled by now but with everything going on, we’re probably not gonna be able to do that for at least, well, the board is planning to meet periodically over the summer so that might be something that they could tackle once we get the fall set.

SBLive: It sounds like the feedback you guys elicited from last fall at the three high school [football] venues was positive. Is there urgency to get this done? The Tacoma Dome was renewed every year around a certain time, or there was a long term deal signed. Is there more flexibility with potential state championships at high school venues?

Andy Barnes: Any time we’re not using the large facilities, and we’re using high school sites or smaller venues, there’s definitely more flexibility. The high school sites at that time (early December) really, there’s nothing going on because all of the fall sports have been done and really the only one that you’d be competing with would be soccer.

So yeah, we definitely still have time. I think we’ve already talked with the three sites that we use after the championships and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll review everything.’ But I think that they’re definitely prepared to host again, but we’re also looking at … obviously last year was the first time through and we learned some things. We probably have some things that we can fix, but yeah, I definitely think we have some flexibility to give us some more time. But if you’re looking at a venue like CenturyLink, or a venue like Husky Stadium, obviously, we have to factor in those teams and other events that will be going on at that time.

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