Like every other athletic director in Central Washington, Toppenish High School A.D. Brett Stauffer is ready for some football.
And volleyball, and soccer, and cross country.
Top-Hi is one of more than 1,000 high schools around the state being forced to sit out the fall sports season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with case numbers in Yakima County steadily declining for the past two months, Stauffer and others in the high school athletic community are wondering why the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) can’t try a different approach.
“Early on, I could understand because everyone was paranoid about the virus,” Stauffer said, referring to the WIAA’s decision to cancel the spring sports season. “But the damage being done to kids from sitting out another season far outweighs what COVID could do to them.”
Stauffer said he’s not trying to downplay the virus, which has killed at least 200,000 Americans since March (including 270 in Yakima County). He’s simply looking for a balance, and he says schools like Top-Hi can safely resume athletics this fall. Stauffer believes bringing back sports also could help schools around the Yakima Valley figure out how to re-introduce in-person instruction.
“The school system offers a healthier, safer situation for kids, and we could offer them better protection than they have now,” he said. “We would test them, mask them and keep them socially distant as much as possible. Coming back to school is what’s best for the kids, and, to me, that’s what this should be about.”
As of late September, Yakima County remains in a modified phase one of the state’s Safe Start reopening plan. Most public schools in the state are offering online-only instruction for the first 18 weeks of the academic year, and inter-school athletic competitions have been put on hold by the WIAA until at least Dec. 28.
Because Yakima County has seen significant improvements in its COVID infection rate since early summer — and is reportedly nearing phase two status — small-group practices for all high school sports could resume by early October. That would allow athletes involved in fall, winter and spring sports to return to the field, court, mat or pool for about three months before live competition begins after Christmas.
“We plan to do some small-group conditioning in October and November and, hopefully, start the basketball, wrestling and boys swimming seasons on Dec. 28,” Stauffer said. “It sounds like there’s been a lot of pressure on the governor’s office, and they’re starting to loosen their grip with some of these restrictions.”
According to WIAA guidelines, the traditional fall sports season (football, volleyball, girls soccer, cross country, girls swimming) will take place in March and April, while the spring sports season (baseball, softball, boys soccer, track and field, golf and tennis) is slated for May and June.
Stauffer noted that schools in other states, including neighboring Idaho, have forged ahead with fall sports and have seen minimal COVID-19 infection rates. Schools twice the size of Toppenish High have been able to hold events for every fall sport, and “it’s been going fine.”
“Schools in Utah and Idaho have barely slowed down,” he said. “If a kid gets sick, they pull them out, isolate them and keep an eye on everyone they’ve been in contact with. After seeing how other states have handled it, I believe we can do this safely as well.”
Stauffer said he and his coaches are all a little “off balance” this fall, and they want nothing more than to see their student-athletes return. Even if the school has to stage indoor events with a limited number of fans — or no fans — Stauffer thinks it’s worth a try.
“We want to follow the laws, but we can also see the frustration boiling up around the community,” he said. “These kids need to get back to doing what they love to do, and if there’s an outbreak, we can pull back a bit. But, right now, the most important thing is to get the kids back out there playing and competing.”