Port Angeles, Sequim and North Kitsap boys runners are packed together at the start of a cross country meet at Robin Hill County Park last fall. Cross Country, listed as a low-risk sport, could be the first prep sport to resume this fall. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Port Angeles, Sequim and North Kitsap boys runners are packed together at the start of a cross country meet at Robin Hill County Park last fall. Cross Country, listed as a low-risk sport, could be the first prep sport to resume this fall. (Michael Dashiell/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

PREPS: WIAA offers return-to-play guidance for most fall sports

PORT ANGELES — Playing until the whistle blows may not be possible for prep sports athletes this fall — officials will be required to wear masks to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets — in just one of a number of requirements offered up in return-to-activity guidelines amidst the coronavirus pandemic issued by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association on Monday afternoon.

High school sports have been suspended since mid-March to limit spread of the virus, and the document released outlines the requirements for returning to practices and competitions, with the requirements varying by sport.

Lower-risk sports such as cross country will be allowed to roam trails and park lands sooner than a high-risk sport such as football will take to the gridiron, according to the WIAA, the state’s governing body for high school sports.

“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 document stated.

“There will also likely be variation in what sports and activities are allowed to be played and held. While we would typically have reservations regarding such inequities, the [National Federation of State High School Associations’ Sports Medicine Advisory Committee] 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 [state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction] framework.”

The return of high school sports is tied to the state’s four-phased reopening plan, which is instituted on a county-by-county basis.

Jefferson and Clallam counties are currently in Phase 2, during which all sports are allowed to hold workouts in pods of five, with the same five individuals always working out together, as well as no sharing of a ball.

Each county is expected to apply to the state Department of Health for Phase 3 status Monday and should receive an answer sometime later next week.

Each sport is broken down individually, stating what level of practice or competition is allowed during each phase.

In Phase 3, sports designated as lower risk (cross country) are allowed to begin competition while sports designated as moderate risk (volleyball, girls soccer) can be played once a county reaches Phase 4.

The status of football (higher-risk) and girls swimming (low risk, but held indoors) remains unclear.

The football-specific plan implies that games can begin in Phase 4, but it does not state that explicitly.

In the state’s general guidelines for Phase 4 that aren’t sport specific, moderate-risk sports are allowed to begin competition, but there’s no mention of higher-risk sports being allowed to resume games. In addition, in the football-specific Phase 3 guidance, players still aren’t allowed to use the same ball.

Meanwhile, girls swimming is labeled a low-risk sport, which in the general guidelines means meets should be allowed to begin in Phase 3. However, the swimming-specific plan states that in Phase 3 gatherings at indoor pools cannot exceed 10 individuals.

Tying the return of high school sports to the state’s phases means that Washington’s 39 different counties will be able to resume at different times — there are currently 16 counties that have advanced to Phase 3, while three Eastern Washington counties remain in Phase 1 — and that makes competitions between schools from different counties challenging, especially on the North Olympic Peninsula where all nine area high schools are members of leagues that field teams in multiple counties.

In a video accompanying the document, incoming WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman emphasized the need for schools to follow the guidelines.

“It is absolutely critical that people do not get out in front of this, that we continue to be cautious as we move forward,” Hoffman said. “The key to us having the opportunity for students to compete and participate in the fall is going to depend on how healthy we come into that situation. As we fine tune and perfect these guidelines, we’re hoping we’ll be able to play throughout the fall.

“If we have people who get out there too quickly — and several people have challenged the state and myself as well as our team on, ‘Why aren’t we doing it more like other states?’ — what we are now seeing is those other states that went too fast are having to go really slow to catch back up,” Hoffman continued. “We want to make sure to make consistent progress to give every child in our state that wants to participate in our education-based activities the opportunity to do that this fall.”

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Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected].

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