WIAA optimistic about return of high school sports after meeting with Washington state officials

On Thursday, several WIAA staff members met with a group of representatives from the office of Washington Governor Jay Inslee and the state Department of Health to gain a better understanding of what the state’s new COVID-19 reopening metrics mean for high school sports.

The WIAA’s list of questions was long. Phase 2 of the Healthy Washington plan allows for most sports to return to competition. But how quickly will they be able to return? What will sports look like when they return? What is the likelihood of sports being shut down again?

Nearly 11 months since the last sanctioned high school sport was played in Washington, the state association sees a glimmer of hope.

“Right now, we’re optimistic that these new metrics will give us greater opportunity than the former metrics,” WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman told SBLive after the meeting.

“They didn’t commit to anything. They can’t. But at least in the dialogue we walked away from there saying, ‘OK, we think we’re in a better place.'”

The meeting included Jon Snyder, Gov. Inslee’s Senior Policy Advisor for Outdoor Recreation and former Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz, as well as WIAA Executive Board President Tim Thomsen and WIAA Assistant Executive Director Andy Barnes and Hoffman.

The biggest winner of the new metrics? Football, a high-risk outdoor sport that can now resume play in regions that reach Phase 2.

The sports that faces the toughest road ahead? High-risk sports such as basketball and wrestling.

RELATED: OLD METRICS | NEW METRICS

Several of the state’s eight regions, which were created based on the location of health care systems, may be in good position to jump to Phase 2. That optimism is noteworthy, considering how rocky the road for the return of high school sports has been since the beginning of the pandemic. 

After all spring sports were canceled in step with nationwide shutdowns in the early months of the pandemic, the WIAA in late July created a four-season model that pushed higher-risk sports like football and basketball to 2021 and bumped up low-risk outdoor sports to the fall, to be played in counties that reached advanced stages of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start plan. 

But while some form of practice resumed in parts of the state, many counties didn’t meet the requirements to allow sports, and school districts in counties that did opted not to allow competition to resume.

In November, the WIAA shortened its three remaining seasons and pushed the start date to Feb. 1 in anticipation of a new set of metrics the association hoped would allow for a swifter path to play.

And last week, Gov. Inslee introduced a new two-phased reopening plan that measures progress based on trends, as opposed to hard numbers, which seems to provide a path for high school sports to return. Though questions still remained, the WIAA Executive Board acted quickly, moving traditional fall sports to first in line with the start of practice pegged for as early as Feb. 1 in regions that reach Phase 2.

After the meeting with state officials, SBLive spoke with Hoffman about the WIAA’s cautious optimism that prep sports and activities are nearing a return, what prep sports will look like in the pandemic and whether or not to expect most leagues to break away and create their own localized season structures. That conversation has been condensed into a question-and-answer format. Answers have been edited for clarity:

SBLIVE: The new state-issued reopening plan seems to offer promise for a return to play, but it also left a lot of questions. What questions did the WIAA have and what were your biggest findings from the meeting?

MICK HOFFMAN: Our questions were initially, how do they foresee these metrics playing out? Our big question is, how realistic is it for anybody to get to Phase 2? And there’s no signs to it, nobody’s done a comparison yet of a month ago, or two months ago, of those numbers. … And then we had an AD on the side actually do a bunch of work. Ryan Peplinski at Saint George’s put together a PDF he sent me. I haven’t fact checked it, but just to give us an idea where we think the metrics may be (region-by-region) … I would say, right now, we’re optimistic that these new metrics will give us greater opportunity than the former metrics. And the reason we say that is with a hard number being the one metric number of cases and having to get to 75 or 100 (cases per 100,000 people), for most sports, those counties right now may not ever get there. And with this new focus, the medical care capacity in their region is going to drop 10%. So they go from 1,000 to 900. They meet that metric, if they’re hospitalizations, which should correlate to a 10% drop. Then if they have the ICU capacity and their positivity rate is below 90% and 10%, they make it to Phase 2. And then to stay in that phase, they simply just have to meet two of those metrics. So if the numbers are continuing to decline, why would you change it, right? If their ability to serve the community is changing, why would you move people back? 

SBLIVE: Once a region reaches Phase 2 and most sports are allowed to compete, are they permanently in Phase 2, or can they be bumped down if the virus spikes again?

HOFFMAN: “They built in a couple safeguards. One is only having to meet two of the four, or stay flat, to keep in the next phase. But the second one is, there’s concern about how good is the data. On their own website it talks about how the positivity rate is backlogged from November. The State Department of Health has the ability to step in and say, ‘you know what, we’re not going to push you back this week, let us get caught up or clarify, make sure we don’t duplicate numbers, or bad data.’ So they build some things in, because their goal is to say, once you get to Phase 2, they don’t really want to make people back down unless there really is an issue. So they don’t want to be at the mercy of some metrics that are untested. They want it based on actually what they’re able to do and keeping people safe. So hearing that gave us more hope … That was the big question we had. They didn’t commit to anything. They can’t. But at least in the dialogue we walked away from there saying, ‘OK, we think we’re in a better place.’ 

The other piece is, while we’re in Phase 1, we talked about the initial guidance that they sent us to review, it didn’t speak to moderate or high risk, indoor sports, like volleyball couldn’t do anything (practice or compete). And so we asked about that. And that was a misinterpretation. So they’re working on some language. We’re hopeful that even in Phase 1, indoor sports, moderate and high risk, can at least be spaced out of that 500 square feet. So you figure a gym is typically at least 10,000 square feet. If they’re able to do that, you might be able to bring six or eight kids in and do some individualized shooting drills or ball handling drills. They’re not going to be able to play 2-on-2 or 3-on-3, or do any drill work. So that would at least get kids back in gyms with coaches. Volleyball can do quite a bit with 3-on-3, basketball could do quite a bit with 3-on-3. Wrestling, they’ll be a little more challenging to do more shadow work in that, but it at least gives them the opportunity to do that. The biggest winner probably in all this is football because you get to Phase 2, you can play. We didn’t have metrics for that before.”

SBLIVE: In Phase 1 for outdoor sports, low and moderate risk are permitted for practice and training. Then high risk sports are first mentioned in Phase 2 to compete. Where does practice for football, a high-risk sport, stand in all this? Especially as a sport that may need it most in the lead-up to a jump-started season.

HOFFMAN: “Fortunately football coaches over-prepare by nature, right? That’s just the nature of the beast. Successful football coaches are highly organized. So my guess is the way we could see this playing out is in Phase 1 they would be doing with their groups of five, a lot of the conditioning, right? They’re not gonna be able to teach form tackling and all that. Once they hit Phase 2, they’ll still need to go through that pre-practice progression like they do every year anyway. So if we have a typical Aug. 19-ish start date, they do the three days of nothing and then put some shells on and start doing some contact and get into that. A Feb. 1, start date, best case scenario for football right now, means that maybe that second week they can have their 10 practices in and play. We expect the conversation to continue around … because football can only play once a week, do we need to make some type of season accommodation for that? The board has done that in the past. At this point, we’ll talk more about that on the 19th. But prior to that, knowing football coaches, they’ll have those groups of five out there conditioning, because they can space them out on the field in those pods of five. They’ll be able to get out there and condition and do some stuff, even do a little drill work. 

Part one of our asks yesterday was rather than five, can we go back to six? Because then at least you can do 3-on-3, half line blocking techniques, you can do some skill position bunch packages, or whatever you want to do. So you could have a center work with a quarterback and a running back and two linebackers and defensive tackle, you can do some stuff with six kids that you can’t do with five. So we’re hopeful they were open to that. They understand how 3-on-3 impacts volleyball, basketball, football, specifically. That would give a lot more options in Phase 1. And that’s all we were doing in most places before. Kids were excited, coaches were ecstatic to at least get to that point. The better a coach does that in Phase 1, the more prepared they will be when they get to Phase 2.”

SBLIVE: So those Phase 1 practices would not count for the 10 practices required to play?

HOFFMAN: “No Phase 1 practices would count. Just like the preseason stuff before the start of the season. So they’re still going to need to get those in. Our sports medicine advisory committee has reviewed pre-practice requirements and they have been adjusted based on the medical expertise in the state. So where most of them were 10, it’s five (practices) now. But that comes with a caveat, we’re really pushing schools to make sure they’re doing that pre-conditioning before they get to the season. So if you’re only going to have five practices before a volleyball match, we would hope that coaches have kids doing some conditioning in that in Phase 1 until they get to Phase 2 because, again, we need kids to be safe before we can have fun playing.”

SBLIVE: As of last Wednesday, the only league to officially apply through the WIAA portal to opt-out was the Northwest Conference. (Wesco has since done so.) And those conversations I’m sure will intensify now that there’s more of an idea of what the metrics and WIAA plan look like. What have you heard on that front? The WIAA has left that door open for leagues.

HOFFMAN: “I think there’s going to be quite a few, honestly. I think most of them are gonna wait until they see what’s decided on Jan. 19 — where we play spring sports and winter sports on the calendar. Also, I think some are waiting to get a better understanding of these metrics. And so it’s really hard to play it. You know, we talked at the start, we’re making our plans in pencil, now we’re making them in smoke. Rather than spend a bunch of time devising plans, I think the plan that you know, we’ve seen out there from was either from Northwest Conference or Wesco — I can’t remember because we’re talking to both — they had a phenomenal template I think a lot of regions are going to use as a starting base along with ours. Theirs is very similar to what we will probably end up with. A lot of it’s going to depend on what they value. Small schools can really stick to prominent sports, really any sports because there’s not enough kids in a school have 30 kids or 50 kids. So it’s gonna come down to some community values. In some parts of our state, you know, spring sports are the No. 1 driver, we see that up there in the Northwest region. And that’s why you see their plan, they’re really geared to making sure spring sports has the best opportunity to play. There are other regions where fall sports might be more important, or winter sports. We don’t want to impede on what those local communities value. So that’s why we have the flexibility. We expect quite a few but I think we’ll actually start seeing the plans on paper. Once we have an understanding of the metrics and the board’s able to finalize their plan on the 19th.

ADs are athletically-inclined people and they’re all educators, they’re smart people. The new metrics obviously give an advantage or more flexibility, I would say, to outdoor sports. So you pick what are our two seasons where we have most of our outdoor sports, the fall, and the spring? And then the next thing the board looked at was go ‘OK, so those are really our two options, the winter season that we had, there really isn’t realistic with these metrics.’ So which one do we put first? Well, spring sports last out lost year. One of our goals and what we’ve heard loud and clear from our membership in general is, ‘make sure spring sports stay a priority and the general plan.’ So we said, ‘OK, well, let’s go with our traditional kickoff of fall sports.’ They’re used to playing in November, December. So starting in February isn’t that big of a difference. And if we end up putting spring sports in second season, they’re starting within a few weeks of when they normally would, or maybe we move winter sports, or we’ll see what the board decides. It’s just more people taking a look at the new metrics and saying, ‘well, what sports can be played?’ If baseball and cross countries and ready to start in Spokane or Kittitas on Feb. 1, they can move it later if that’s what works for them. There is a focus on doing what we can for spring sports, since they already missed out once.”

SBLIVE: (Executive Board President) Tim Thomsen said if we get to Feb. 22 and there are still no sports, it’s going to be hard to maintain that three-season structure the longer this goes on. Was that a nod to small schools and some of the hurdles they would face stacking high-participation sports on top of one another?

HOFFMAN: “Absolutely. It does a couple things. The other thing is it keeps us from having to stack seasons that normally wouldn’t be stacked. And so, one, our multi-sport athletes don’t have to choose. It’s not even so much that they can’t play their second love, it’s that they have to tell the coach they really love and respect, they’re not going to play for him or her. So it becomes very personal. I mean, kids have gone through enough, we don’t need to create a situation where it’s unnecessary. The second piece is, in some of our schools, you would lose coaches, right? Because they coach multiple sports and if we end up with two seasons, we start stacking. Small schools specifically would be impacted more than larger schools, then we might see some large school leagues decide to go to two seasons to lengthen the time they get those games in. But I think that’s going to be last resort if they can’t, because once you get past Feb. 22, you’re looking at such a short (window) for three seasons. You know, then what’s the what’s the best of two bad possibilities?”

SBLIVE: Will masks be required in competition? What are the rules there?

HOFFMAN: “Yeah, that was a question we asked (Thursday), and we were told part of the requirements to play is we’ve got to wear a mask at all times. All sports at all times. Now they’re gonna continue to review. There’s a possibility there could be one or two that maybe they be non-essential, some individual outdoor sports, potentially (golf, for example). But I will tell you this about masks. I think the NFHS has put out some information, I need to review it, but where 19 states are requiring masks. And I specifically talked to Mark Uyl, who’s the executive director back in Michigan, and his son’s a football player also. And they were wearing masks all season. And he said, ‘yeah, you know, it was a topic.’ But he said, ‘we got through it and there were no issues with it, and if that’s what it took for our governor to allow us to play, then we wore the mask.’ He said ‘my son didn’t like it, but he got used to it by the end of the season.’ That was really a non-issue. Now, he might go through four of those blue hospital (masks) in a game. But they did not have any issues. And, you know, they’re on a six-week delay now, and they’re coming back. And they’re gonna play their fall football and volleyball and some other championships here in the next two weeks. So, they’ve been a great source of information for us to check, because their government has kind of a similar viewpoint on how to direct this. And their weather is more severe than ours, but in some places, it’s pretty similar.”

RELATED: Officials say 99.6 precent of Michigan high school athlete COVID-19 tests are negative, per report

Here is the risk level for each sport, as determined by the state department of health

HIGH-RISK

• Basketball
• Cheerleading with contact 
• Dance with contact 
• Football 
• Wrestling

MODERATE-RISK

• Baseball 
• Bowling 
• Gymnastics 
• Soccer 
• Softball 
• Volleyball

LOW-RISK

• Cross Country 
• Golf 
• Sideline/no-contact cheerleading and dance 
• Swimming and Diving 
• Tennis 
• Track and Field

More links:

CURRENT 2021 SPORTS CALENDAR

WASHINGTON’S COVID-19 DASHBOARD

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