A group of administrators and athletic directors from Eastern Washington high schools wrote a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington State Department of Health, dated Dec. 10, encouraging the state legislature to relax the protocols surrounding high school sports and activities with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The administrators were all from Districts 7 and 9, comprised of mostly 1B and 2B schools in the outlying counties of Eastern Washington.
The Greater Spokane League is in District 8 and was not part of the letter.
In the letter, the administrators specifically asked Inslee to consider recent data that shows “very limited transmission of the virus within schools leading to the conclusion that the school campus is one of the safest places a student can be during this pandemic.”
While stating a “moral obligation” to their students, the administrators acknowledged “statewide and regionally that enrollment is down overall, D and F lists have never been higher, remote learning continues to prove difficult, students are struggling with their mental health, and the use of illegal substances appears to be on the rise …
“Our students need to experience the extra and co-curricular activities that allow them to utilize their unique gifts and talents and also provide a safer outlet for them to cope with these difficult times.”
The letter did not specify a timeline or plan of action, but concluded with a request “to have the ability to slowly and safely engage students in small group extra and co-curricular activities with a return to limited, local/regional competition.”
Inslee announced on Wednesday the state was relaxing the guidelines to in-person instruction in the schools, but provided no update to athletics and activities.
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association later that day sent out a release.
“The revised recommendations for in-person learning issued by the Governor’s Office, OSPI and Department of Health show that our state leaders are using all available science and data to drive their decisions. While sports and activities were not covered during the announcement, the WIAA is hopeful that guidelines for extracurricular participation will also be revised to align with the data and information that was presented today.”
Greg Whitmore, a member of the WIAA executive board and athletic director for the Lind-Ritzville School District, was a signatory to the administrators’ letter. He understands as well as anyone the difficult nature of the situation and the pressures everyone – from the schools to the governor’s office – is under.
“They’re having to balance health and safety with some of the other things we’re finding on the other side of health and safety, the social and emotional,” Whitmore said. “We have to change what we’re doing based on the new data and everything else.
“The message yesterday from the governor – they’re recognizing that school is probably the safest place for kids. We hope that translates over to athletics pretty soon.”
Whitmore said the state has been gathering and evaluating data from other states that played throughout the fall. He added that the small schools have has success with safely practicing in pods and in-person learning at certain schools.
In November, WIAA director Mick Hoffman published an op-ed advocating for a safe return to athletics and activities in the state, citing studies in Wisconsin, New Jersey and here in Washington stating a limited number of COVID-19 cases were linked to high school and youth sports.
That led administrators across Eastern Washington to get together to figure out how best to add to the discussion.
“We just felt like we should do this at the local level, too,” Whitmore said.
“As everyone is feeling frustrated by not having athletics and just the world we’re in, it was time, we felt, to start advocating some more.
“I don’t think me on the board carries any more weight. Being on the WIAA executive board, we have to make some of the same tough decisions for an incredibly diverse state.”
Whitmore was encouraged by the governor’s revisions to the in-person learning schedule and hopes it leads to revising the activities guidelines.
“It’s a positive for us,” Whitmore said. “Education usually in this world comes first, as it probably should. But athletics are such an important part of education, not only athletics but all the other co-curricular activities … as we get deeper and deeper into this pandemic, you just continue to see harmful effects, socially and emotionally, and it’s a tough balancing act.”
The administrators believe if the smaller districts get to the point where they feel secure in allowing participation safely – with fans or without – Whitmore thinks they would be responsible with the decision.
“We hope that we can maybe get some more localized decision being made.”
On the front line
Ryan Peplinski, the athletic director and boys basketball coach at St. George’s School, echoed the sentiments. St. George’s is doing hybrid learning at the high school level.
“I get to see on the front line what’s going on with the kids,” Peplinski said. “I’ve been able to see with the workouts we had before (earlier in the fall), how that brought the spirits up. The body language just changed, giving kids back activities. There’s a reason all those things are combined into the school day.
“Right now, we need to get back to doing some aspects of that as safely as we can.”
Peplinski said athletes are well-equipped to follow rules and procedures in order to participate in athletics. He cited an interview with a group of athletes in Idaho that was willing to sacrifice in order to participate in sports this fall.
“They said, ‘I did everything I could just to make sure I could get to that next game.’ That’s kind of what we want, right?
“Schools adhere to a lot of rules anyway. We’re used to that. These (protocols) are different, so there’s a learning process, but no matter how stringent they are I think any coach or AD would say ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot.’
“Everyone in the state wants a return to some sort of competition in the spring, whether it results in state or regional championships or not. At this point, most feel like it would be an accomplishment just to practice or scrimmage with teammates again.”
Whitmore said it’ll take everyone uniting for the common cause.
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I’m feeling a little more optimistic.
“I’d be way more optimistic if I saw a lot more people following the science and doing the hard thing of masking up, staying apart – especially though these holiday seasons – and taking care of each other.”
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