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Dave Nichols: Long way to go before high school sports return

UPDATED: Tue., June 23, 2020

On Monday, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association issued guidelines for the state’s high school sports to return to play this fall. It is a well-intentioned and necessary set of documents, but doesn’t – rather, can’t – answer the question everyone wants to know.

When will it be safe for our kids to play again?

The WIAA guidelines are modeled after the National Federation of State High School Associations’ 16-page guideline package issued in May, and they follow Gov. Inlsee’s four-phase plan to reopen the state, even though positive tests are reaching record levels in states that have lifted pandemic restrictions.

Each sport was assigned a risk factor – high, moderate or low – with different parameters for return in coordination with the phase each district/county is in.

If you’re a parent (or coach or administrator), where do you draw the line in the balance between letting your kids play against keeping them safe?

“Low-risk” sports can return under Phase 3. Obviously, the parameters are easier for low-risk sports, such as cross country or individual swim events, where chance of contact with other participants is low and there’s no exchange of a ball between players.

Moderate-risk sports (soccer, volleyball) can return in Phase 4. The WIAA’s guidelines don’t describe when high-risk sports – football, competitive cheer and dance/drill – can return to play, although modified practices may begin under Phase 3. Modified means football practice in groups of five to 10 players with no contact or shared footballs.

Spokane is currently under Phase 2, but with cases rising again here and across the state, a move to Phase 3 has been delayed. Phase 4 seems a faraway dream at this point.

Football opens up not just a can, but a whole case, of worms. Revenue generated from the sport essentially funds much of the budget for most athletic departments in the state. How will other sports be funded if football season is wiped out or can’t allow fans to attend?

We don’t know.

The guidelines allow for three important caveats in all of this:

It is “not likely” all schools/counties/regions will return to athletics at the same time;

There will “likely” be variation in what sports and activities are allowed to be played and held;

And ultimately, if there’s no school, there are no sports.

All this boils down to some kids in the state being allowed to play in some sports, while others must remain on the sidelines – if they can get started at all, which remains the biggest “what if” here and across the country.

I can’t imagine how kids are dealing with all of this. I’m sure it’s hard for them (and plenty of adults, too) to understand why these restrictions are in place. And it will be even harder when/if some sports are allowed to move forward while others aren’t.

Testing regimens, mass gatherings and response to a positive test are all currently “under review,” which means they don’t know yet what to do if/when a kid gets sick.

Still, youth sports, colleges and pros are trying to get back at it, even as positive cases climb.

They’re playing American Legion-level baseball independently in Washington and Idaho, even if the national organization isn’t sanctioning it. Play has resumed on softball fields and in gyms with supposedly small-group workouts for basketball and volleyball. It’s all presumably under the direction of responsible parents and coaches following state and municipal guidelines and regulations.

I’ve attended a couple of these sporting events in the area and I’ve been the only adult, let alone competitor, observing social distancing or wearing a mask.

Across the country, wherever athletes have gathered to start training again – college or pros – positive tests have resulted, only to shut down programs and facilities again.

Experts agree, the best way to prevent the spread is isolation and we’re abandoning it. Sports lovers, as with a large segment of our population, have decided that positive tests be damned, it’s “full speed ahead.”

As someone said on Twitter the other day, we won’t see a second wave in the winter if the first one isn’t over yet.

Everyone wants sports to return. We need the distraction and entertainment and camaraderie more than ever.

The WIAA has everyone’s best interest at heart with its guidelines, but it seems premature to be seriously contemplating a return to sanctioned sports in the state.

At this point, it’s all wishful thinking.

I think the WIAA is doing its best to offer guidelines without being specific as to which sports can or can’t play in the fall and when they might start. The short answer is: They don’t know. No one does. Lots can (and probably will) change between now and mid-August when fall practice is supposed to start.

We can all hope conditions improve to the point of allowing our children to participate without risking their health in the process.

It’s good to have hope, but we can’t abandon reason for the sake of competition. In this situation, it has to be safe to play – no questions asked.

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