Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Aug. 4, 2021

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Martinez: It’s frustrating, but liability, rising COVID numbers keep prep athletes on sidelines

High school sports

By , Columbian Assistant Sports Editor

It’s frustrating. No one is debating that.

It’s frustrating that high school sports aren’t being played this fall. No football, soccer, volleyball, softball, cross country, tennis, golf or swimming.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that when you look across the country, you’ll see other states pushing forward with fall sports.

Take football for example, where 26 states have opened the high school football season in one form or another. Another eight states have plans to play football this fall.

That leaves 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, that are sticking to plans not to play full-contact tackle football in the fall of 2020.

Even more frustrating is watching some states – Michigan, Delaware, Colorado, and most recently, Minnesota – reverse earlier decisions to not play football this fall.

Buoyed by that news, a group of high school athletes, Student Athletes of Washington (SAW), has started a petition and held a rally urging officials in our state to reconsider the suspended fall season.

The governor’s office responded by saying the final decision to hold high school sports this fall ultimately remains with local school districts.

But the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association responded with a statement last weekend by saying any school decision to bring back sports must start with a recommendation from the governor.

It sounds like a classic case of passing-the-buck, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

Last month, when the Gov. Jay Inslee announced the decision-making framework — created in concert with the state department of health and the state superintendent of public instruction — to help school districts make decisions about the modes of learning to be used at the start of the school year.

Those guidelines included a recommendation against holding any in-person extracurricular activities while schools were providing primarily remote learning.

The WIAA said that 95 percent of state’s schools are beginning the school year with remote learning. And the majority of school districts are choosing to follow the governor’s recommendations against offering sports for one particular reason – liability.

I don’t think anyone would argue that playing sports, particularly low-risk sports like golf, tennis and cross country, is a safer in regards of the spread of this virus than in-person learning, where students are in close contact in enclosed spaces for up to six hours a day.

However, if a school opts to offer sports against the governor’s recommendation and a student becomes infected and sues the school district, the governor’s recommendation could be used against the schools.

And school districts don’t want to take that risk.

As Central Kitsap school board member Rob MacDermid put it: “We’re playing Russian Roulette with potential litigation with the possible exposure of our children to COVID.”

Even if the governor alters the recommendation regarding sports and remote learning, most districts won’t feel comfortable moving forward with sports as long as instruction as being done exclusively remotely. That has long been standard policy for schools in regards to risk management – no school, no sports.

The WIAA offered the following checklist of what is needed before it will reconsider a return-to-play plan.

  • A recommendation from the governor to play
  • The state department of health to provide guidance on required steps to return to play.
  • School districts’ risk management teams to review those recommendations.
  • And finally, school leadership to commit to return to play. In other words, a significant portion of the state’s schools committed bringing back sports.

That’s a lot, and not very encouraging. But the WIAA did add that most schools would consider returning to play as soon as students can return to school, even in a hybrid model.

But in Clark County at least, a move to the hybrid model isn’t happening anytime soon.

After sitting in the moderate-risk range for COVID-19 cases – fewer than 75 cases per 100,000 people in a two-week period – since Aug. 18, Clark County returned Tuesday to the high-risk category with 76.15 cases per 100,000 residents.

The state’s number of recent COVID-19 cases sits just below Clark County at 74.6 per 100K.

So the chances of the governor changing his stance are remote.

To make matters worse, the WIAA’s open coaching period is scheduled to start next Monday. But with the numbers being where they are now, many schools likely won’t permit their coaches and athletes to do much of anything.

And that is extremely frustrating.

But that’s where we’re at.

Everyone wants kids to be playing. Everyone understands the value that activity brings to students, not only for their mental, emotional and social well-being, but on their ability to succeed in learning. No one will argue that.

But the rewards and risks need to be weighed, and it can’t be a 50-50 kind of thing.

No one has all the answers when it comes to this virus, so I won’t profess to having any idea about what’s the right call here.

But if this all comes down to someone being wrong about this virus, isn’t it better to be wrong on the side of being overly cautious than being wrong on the side of being overly cavalier?