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WIAA releases health guidelines for fall sports return to play

UPDATED: Mon., June 22, 2020

Gonzaga Prep quarterback Ryan McKenna (11) runs the ball during a Greater Spokane League game on Oct. 25, 2019 at Central Valley High School.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Prep quarterback Ryan McKenna (11) runs the ball during a Greater Spokane League game on Oct. 25, 2019 at Central Valley High School. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association on Monday released its health guidelines for a return to play in high school and middle school sports.

The guidelines are in conjunction with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington four-step plan for reopening the state and individual counties during the COVID-19 pandemic and takes into consideration the need to “adapt to an ever-changing environment.”

The WIAA, in partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and WIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committees (SMACs), offered the document as guidance on how WIAA member schools can consider approaching the many components of “opening up” high school athletics and activities across the state of Washington.

The NFHS and WIAA SMACs believe “it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the nation to return to physical activity and athletic competition.”

Each fall sport was assigned a risk factor, with specific guidelines and requirements, governing the aspects of return-to-play.

  • High: Sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants (Football, competitive cheer, competitive dance/drill
    • ).
    • Moderate: Sports that involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants (Soccer, volleyball, slowpitch softball
      • , relay swim).
      • Low: Sports that can be done physical distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors. (Cross country, sideline cheer, noncompetitive dance/drill, individual swim/dive
        • .

        Low-risk sports can return under “Phase 3” of the WIAA’s guidance and moderate risk sports can return in Phase 4. The WIAA’s guidelines do not describe at which phase high-risk sports – football, cheer and dance/drill – can return to play, although the NFHS document says modified practices may begin for high-risk sports under Phase 3.

        The attachments to the document went into specifics for each sport on how to handle various issues, including handling of balls and other athletic equipment, contact permissions and instructions, and limitations and requirements for participants, coaches, staff, trainers, officials and spectators.

        The attachments also went into sport-specific detail about face coverings, social distancing and locker room etiquette.

        The guidelines came with some important caveats.

        The document stated that it is “not likely that ALL students will be able to return to – and sustain – athletic activity at the same time in all schools and regions in Washington.”

        The release went on to state: “(W)hen a school, schools, or district are closed due to COVID-19, all training, practice, and contests for the school(s) or district should also be canceled.”

        This leaves open the possibility that some geographical areas in the state will return to play quicker than others – or, perhaps, not at all – depending on cases of COVID-19 and infection rates in those areas.

        In its June 10 return-to-play guiding principles press release, the WIAA said that while not ideal, “the WIAA intends to conduct a regular season and/or championships even if all schools are not able to participate.”

        There will also “likely be variation in what sports and activities are allowed to be played and held.” This provision allows specific sports to be postponed or canceled altogether if safe conditions for competing can’t be met.

        The WIAA said, “While we would typically have reservations regarding such inequities, the NFHS SMAC endorses the idea of returning students to school-based athletics and activities in any and all situations where it can be done safely and in alignment with reopening policies set forth by the local school district and OSPI framework.”

        The recommendations presented in the document were originally developed by the NFHS SMAC as guidelines for state associations to design return-to-activity guidelines that are in accordance with state and local guidelines and restrictions. The WIAA has engaged with the Governor’s Office as well as the State Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to develop guidelines regarding coordinated approaches for return-to-activity for high school and middle schools.

        The WIAA recommends school districts consult with local and state health departments to review if they are using guidance from this approach to verify how the stages in this document correspond to Gov. Inslee’s directives for each school and school district’s specific area.

        The association says the return-to-play guidelines “will be adjusted” as necessary

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