By Geoff Baker
Mount Si High School football player Cole Norah says he’s more thrilled than apprehensive about returning to play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The senior running back joins athletes across King and Snohomish counties this week in resuming full-fledged team workouts ahead of games next month. Washington is only now launching a delayed fall season for high school sports on a staggered basis, so his Snoqualmie-based team and others have done conditioning drills for weeks in small player pods. A handful of schools statewide have already begun football and soccer games.
As one of the creators of a petition by the Student Athletes of Washington group, which marched on Olympia in September demanding Gov. Jay Inslee allow fall sports, this outcome is something Norah wanted six months ago. He’s confident we’ve since learned enough from sports attempted elsewhere to avoid undue risks.
“I’m not really nervous, because we’ve seen how other schools in other states have played high school football and done it successfully,” said Norah, 18, who has committed as a preferred walk-on player at Washington State University next fall and hopes to show enough in these games to earn a scholarship offer. “I think we’ve done a lot of research in our state to know what’s right and safe, and I think we can do this safely.
“So I think the risks are lesser than the reward.”
Around the state, students, coaches, health and athletic officials spent months weighing those risks of restarting high school sports. Moving too soon, or without proper precautions, could spread COVID-19 and lead to illness and death seen in some states where such sports were attempted last fall. Waiting too long could, according to several recent studies, risk serious harm to students’ physical and mental well-being.
With nearly 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and more contagious variants emerging, the stakes surrounding sports featuring unpaid athletes ages 15 to 18 are high.
But Washington’s case numbers have slowed to where all eight regions were approved for Phase 2 reopening of moderate-risk sports. Most leagues are starting with fall sports, which include football, volleyball, cross country, girls swimming and girls soccer. But all the leagues are starting at different times.
High-risk indoor sports such as basketball and wrestling might be able to start in the spring if state-mandated health metrics are met.
Still, there’s concern that resuming high school sports could cause a community backslide.
Unlike major professional and college teams, COVID-19 testing isn’t required by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association — the body overseeing high school competition statewide — and schools, citing high costs. Neither are temperature checks, as many school districts’ risk management programs don’t mandate them. Instead, the reopening leans largely on an honor system in which teenage athletes attest whether they’re symptom-free.
But those athletes also won’t be flying in airplanes to games or staying in hotels like pros and collegians. They will wear masks throughout — even while playing football — and competitions will be mostly devoid of fans. There will be no tournaments, limited playoffs, and teams will cross state lines only in a handful of cases for league play. The WIAA has given leagues across the state flexibility to form their own plans to play high school sports.
Health experts say Washington’s on-field/on-court plan is relatively thorough, but the lack of testing leaves plenty to chance off them — where athletes must avoid community situations in which they can contract and spread COVID-19.
“What we know about COVID transmission — and we’ve been thinking about it a lot with school reopenings — is that cases will happen,” said UW epidemiology professor Janet Baseman, who worries about the proximity of football players and mask slippage during games. “Not because schools aren’t adhering to best practices and infection control, but because somebody’s going to get sick outside of school and then bring it to school and maybe transmit it to somebody else.”
And with some athletes getting up close and physical, results could be as harmful as other societal gatherings with infected people.
“If I get sick and go to the grocery store, I could expose other people at the store,” Baseman said. “If I’m a football player and I get sick because I went to a Super Bowl party with my friends, then I show up on a field without symptoms, and others get sick and go visit Grandma the following weekend — that’s a risk and potential problem.”
That’s why, she added, it’s critical that players adhere to on-field protocols such as proper mask wearing to counter the off-field variables.
Mask wearing and limiting attendance at competitions to 200 people — which includes players, coaches and fans — are major components of mandatory guidelines imposed by Inslee’s office. Those were created after input from the WIAA about states where high school sports resumed.
“What gives us confidence that this can be done and done well is states like Utah, Arizona and Idaho — that played near us — played over 90% of their scheduled contests,” WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman said. “Even though there were some transmission issues or positive cases … what those states shared with us was that the issues that came up were typically related to exposures in classrooms and most often outside the school in social settings or family households.”
Experts for months have debated the idea that COVID-19 isn’t being spread much by athletic competition, but more in locker rooms and by fans in the stands. Hence, the state-imposed attendance limits.
Guidelines also call for continual washing and sanitizing of equipment and the flushing of indoor facilities with fresh air. Indoor sports are somewhat more concerning than outdoor, with pro and scholastic basketball and hockey nationwide enduring COVID-19 outbreaks — suggesting air filtration could be to blame.
Much like office buildings, many high schools have aging ventilation systems too costly to overhaul. So they’ll boost ventilation by opening gymnasium doors and windows while limiting attendance to the lesser of the state-mandated 200 people or 25% of a building’s fire-code occupancy.
Volleyball is the main indoor sport during this go-round, and Hoffman is eager to see whether air-quality measures suffice. Overall, he feels risks will be contained.
“The state and the Department of Health have been very conservative,” Hoffman said. “When you look at the state numbers in general, we have a lot fewer deaths and transmissions. And so for them to allow this gives us confidence that we’re in a good place with it.”
Dr. Josh Hill, an infectious-disease specialist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said the state already had strict requirements for how low a region’s COVID-19 transmission levels needed to be before Phase 2 sports approval. He feels that and the mandated safety measures should make for “a relatively low risk of infection.”
But Hill added: “Even in professional sports with a ton of the money thrown at it — with testing and all these pieces — outbreaks are still popping up.”
And with high school athletes more prone to becoming asymptomatic COVID carriers and unwitting spreaders, he said they must stay diligent about mask wearing and distancing off and on fields and courts.
“I think most sports leagues and districts are going to be very conservative with this — at least I hope, in our region,” Hill said. “They know that if they have an outbreak it’s going to shut everything down.”
Some leagues are going beyond mandated guidelines.
“We’re having no fans at our events,” said Pat McCarthy, athletic director for Seattle Public Schools, which includes the 18-member Metro League in Seattle and East King County. “I hate to say that, but to be able to take that on is just an additional level.”
And though Inslee’s office recently exempted cross-country runners from keeping masks up during races, the Metro League will still require masking throughout.
The WesCo conference — encompassing 22 schools mostly in Snohomish County — also won’t allow fans in order to reduce risk.
“The spread of COVID hasn’t really been from what happens in the trenches related to our competitions,” WesCo athletic director Don Dalziel said. “It’s more what happens pre- and post-practice and what kids do on their own time.”
The KingCo Conference has regionalized competition for its Eastside schools — forgoing the typical league structure based on 2A, 3A and 4A size classifications. For sports with more than one competition a week, they’ll play against the same opponent rather than switching it up.
“We’re looking to limit the exposure of athletes to people they’re not normally in contact with,” KingCo athletic director Dan Pudwill said.
State guidelines require screenings of athletes and coaches before every workout and competition, and anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms must stay home. Some leagues are using smartphone applications on which players scroll through a list of symptoms — such as fever, chills, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell — and indicate whether they’re experiencing them.
If none is indicated, the app displays a green check mark allowing entry to that day’s event. Students without smartphones, or in leagues not using apps, must answer similar online or paper questionnaires.
The state requires those barred from workouts for displaying symptoms or after close contact to follow local health department guidance by quarantining at least 10 days. Given that, it’s possible athletes facing extended time away if they admit to COVID-19 symptoms may not be honest with screening responses.
Of relying on largely an honor system, Fred Hutchinson specialist Hill said: “It’s not perfect — and so there’s the possibility of transmission.”
But he added that nothing’s perfect and said we’ve reached the point where risks must be weighed against factors such as athlete mental health as society starts gradually reopening amid ongoing vaccinations.
“This is a pragmatic approach to taking our foot off the brake and start putting it back on the pedal,” he said.
A University of Wisconsin survey last fall of 3,243 sidelined high school student-athletes nationwide found that 68% reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would normally require medical intervention.
Locally, a study headed by University of Washington postdoctoral fellow Scott Graupensperger surveyed 135 NCAA Division II and III athletes pre- and post-COVID-19 sport shutdowns and found that staying connected with teammates while not playing — even just on social media — improved their mental well-being. The study found 43% reported feeling a loss of “athletic identity” when play halted, while 28% were unchanged and 29% felt an increase.
“Being an athlete is such an important part of their positive self-image,” Graupensperger said. “It’s an important part of who they are, their social identity. And so when they’re not able to participate in something they’ve built their identity around, it threatens their identity.”
Graupensperger said it typically happens when athletes get injured or cut by teams. Or when college seniors feel they’re “aging out” of their sport because they lack talent for a pro career.
For that senior group, COVID-19 stoppages likely heightened anxiety by appearing to terminate their careers even quicker. He feels this also is applicable to high schoolers, especially seniors.
“The pandemic provided a blanket identity threat to athletes,” he said. “Because with the exception of some pro leagues, amateur sport was basically canceled on the spot.”
O’Dea football coach Monte Kohler noticed “a different energy” once his players began conditioning drills knowing games were coming.
“I mean, especially in the seniors,” Kohler said. “They were thinking they were going to lose it all just like last year’s spring (sports) seniors.”
Kohler, 62, said he isn’t worried about his safety, and initial concerns about assistant coaches in their 70s eased as workouts progressed and players remained distanced with masks on. His staff nonetheless has kept watch for signs of COVID-19 symptoms regardless of what players put in their screening responses.
Mount Si coach Charlie Kinnune, 58, admitted to some nerves during initial workouts. But he’s using a wireless microphone so distanced players can hear him, knowing they’re signing the screening attestations beforehand, masking up, accessing hand sanitizer throughout practice and bringing their own water bottles.
He’s also as excited as his players to be back.
“There’s a lot of trepidation, sure — but we have mental health needs, too,” Kinnune said of coaches. “Last year was my 50th straight year in football. I hadn’t missed a fall season since I was 9 years old. So we need this as much as the kids.”
Kinnune’s star running back, Norah, says the mental toll of the past year was real; a seemingly endless cycle of daylong virtual classes, homework, bed and waking up to do it anew.
“We were all just numb to what was going on,” Norah said. “We’re doing the same thing over and over again.”
But now it’s been “awesome” and “insane” to “be around my brothers again” on the field. And it’s largely in their hands as to whether they’ll get to stay there.
Season 1 (Feb. 22-April 17): Football, bowling, girls soccer, slow-pitch softball, girls swimming and diving, volleyball, gymnastics, cross country and golf.
Season 2 (April 19-June 12): Baseball, basketball, boys soccer, boys swimming and diving, fast-pitch softball, tennis, track and field and wrestling.
Season 1 (March 1-April 3): Football (Feb. 24), girls soccer, girls swimming and diving, cross country volleyball, boys golf, boys tennis and slow-pitch softball.
Season 2 (April 5-May 8): Basketball, wrestling, gymnastics (March 29), boys swimming and diving.
Season 3 (May 3-June 12): Baseball, fast-pitch softball, boys soccer, track and field, girls golf and girls tennis.
Season 1 (March 8-April 17): Football (March 1), cross country, girls soccer, volleyball, girls swimming and diving, golf.
Season 2 (April 12-May 22): Baseball, fast-pitch softball, boys soccer, girls tennis, track and field, boys swimming and diving.
Season 3 (May 17-June 26): Basketball, wrestling, gymnastics (May 10), bowling, boys tennis and bowling.
Season 1 (Feb. 22-April 3): Football, girls soccer, girls swimming and diving, volleyball, cross country, boys tennis.
Season 2 (March 29-May 8): Baseball, fast-pitch softball, track and field, boys soccer, golf and girls tennis.
Season 3 (May 3-June 12): Basketball, wrestling, boys swimming and diving, bowling, gymnastics.