Last Friday, I had a chat with Heritage athletic director Erik Gonzalez, and I mentioned that I had just finished speaking with Mick Hoffman, executive director for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.
“Oh, well then you have all the answers,” Gonzalez said.
It was very much tongue-in-cheek. As an AD, Gonzalez knows the frustration of trying to provide answers to a mountain of questions. And it’s no different for Hoffman and the WIAA.
“It’s like planning a party and you don’t know who’s it’s for or who’s coming,” Hoffman said.
“People are looking to us for answers and unfortunately we have more questions than answers,” he added. “We’re trying to service our schools and get information out. It’s been really frustrating trying to navigate that on top of knowing how much kids are hurting. That’s been the hardest part.”
With many high school athletes finally beginning preparations this week for the first competitions of the 2020-21 school year, the outlook is brighter. And that’s thanks to the WIAA working to navigate a tricky landscape of guidelines and restrictions to create a pathway to return to play.
Hoffman sat down with me, via Zoom, last week to discuss several topics related to the pandemic and working to get kids back on the fields and courts.
What the WIAA controls
Since last spring, Hoffman has been inundated with calls of “Let Them Play.” But it was never Hoffman’s decision or the WIAA’s.
Unlike other states, where the state high school activities association have been given the authority to make the decision to play, the WIAA is obligated to follow the directions coming out of the state Capitol in Olympia.
“Early on, everyone thought it was us who were deciding they couldn’t play,” Hoffman said. “But we were the ones trying to access to influence change. … We understand you’re hurting, and we’re with you. We are advocating for you.”
And that hasn’t been easy with the guidelines that have been fluid. The WIAA was put in scramble mode on Jan. 5 when Gov. Jay Inslee introduced the Healthy Washington reopening plan.
“When the metrics changed, that really changed our lives upside down,” Hoffman said. “And we really didn’t know they were changing until the day before. And we didn’t know what they were changing to until we sat through the same press conference that everyone else did.
“It was a pretty enormous upheaval to what we had been doing for months. … We had to study it, make sense of it. Fortunately on Jan. 5, the department of health assigned a liaison to us, and communication has been amplified since then.”
Watching other states
Washington is one of five states, plus the District of Columbia, that have not offered high school sports of any kind during the 2020-21 school year.
And while that has added to the pressure on Hoffman and his staff — people get really frustrated when they see 45 other states playing some sports — it has also provided a wealth of resources for the WIAA.
“We’ve been able to have these ongoing conversations since last spring about what is working and what is not,” Hoffman said.
And while COVID-19 has impacted every state and forced cancellations, other states have been able to push forward and play. Hoffman said Arizona played 95% of its scheduled events last fall. Utah played 96%, and Idaho was in the high 90s.
“So we’ve had the opportunity to listen and learn from a lot of people,” Hoffman said. “And that’s probably one of the most frustrating things, when we see in so many places where it’s working.”
As competitions return, athletes will be in masks, whether they’re running out on the golf course, running cross country or playing tennis physically separated by a net.
Hoffman said the state will continue to review its masks-at-all-times guidelines as it pertains to certain activities.
“They have mentioned that golf and individual tennis” could be altered, Hoffman said. “Cross country is the big one that we’ve been going back and forth on. There is some conflicting information from the general guidelines to some of the specific guidelines. We’re waiting on clarification on that where it talks about masking initially, then when you’re out in the open, pulling that thing down. Then when you come back into the finish, pulling it back up. We’re asking ‘does that meet the mask-at-all-times (guideline), because schools are asking us. We’re hoping to here (this) week.”
Hoffman said he had a conversation with his counterpart in Michigan, Mary Uyl. In Michigan, fall sports championships were halted in November as that state saw a spike in COVID-19 cases. The state was able to complete those championships in January, but with athletes required to wear masks in practices and competitions for sports like football and volleyball.
Hoffman said: “(Uyl) said ‘Look, here is our experience with playing with masks all the time. It sucks. No one likes it. But there was this huge uproar at the start and once we got into it, it wasn’t nearly as big a deal as what they thought. We didn’t have any health issues with it. And by the end of (season), it was a non-issue.’ ”
Hoffman said the WIAA will abide by all mask guidelines coming from the state, while still working to adjust any specific guidelines as they pertain to each activity.
“The state has erred on the side of caution with everything, then they slowly backed that off,” Hoffman said. “We saw that with the metrics (last week), the three out of four (to reach Phase 2) rather than four out of four. So we’re hoping that will continue with the masks.”
High school sports for the balance of this school year are going to look anything but normal. Some leagues are changing members to accommodate schools in their region. Leagues are also making their schedules for Season 1.
There won’t be any state championships this year, and the regional culminating events in Season 1 remain very questionable.
“It’s unfortunate because those are things we love to do,” Hoffman said. “We bring people together. It’s good competition. You’re celebrating excellence. A lot of kids have worked four, five, six, seven years to peak (for that opportunity). Unfortunately, in this first season, it seems more unlikely than likely. We’re holding onto hope that we can do something later in the spring.”
But no matter what type of season is played, even if it is a very local, league-only slate, Hoffman is confident it can be played safely.
“As we get ready to start doing some competitions, we have full faith that our kids and our coaches are going to do the right thing and make this work, because it’s that important to them,” he said. “They finally feel like they have a sense of control at least in their own personal activities.”