High school sports returned to the Yakima Valley over the past month, but just like that, everything is up in the air again.

When the county moved into phase two of the state’s Safe Start plan on Oct. 13, football, volleyball, girls soccer and cross country teams from Yakima to Sunnyside were allowed to practice in small groups starting Oct. 26. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the teams have been following additional safety protocols, such as wearing masks and sanitizing equipment.

But with case numbers soaring around the state this month, all indoor activities were shelved once again Nov. 16 when the WIAA announced new safety restrictions imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee and state public health officials. 

No indoor practices will take place statewide until at least Dec. 14, but outdoor practices are still permitted as long as athletes stay in groups of six or less. In addition to placing a temporary pause on all indoor activities, the WIAA moved the start of the winter sports season to Feb. 2, instead of the previous target date of Dec. 28.

Each of the three sports seasons (fall, winter and spring) will now have a seven-week window to compete in 2021. … Hopefully.

“I just feel bad for the kids,” Zillah Athletic Director Rock Winters said. “It’s sad for them to have to miss their seasons, and I feel sick that are having to go through this, especially the seniors.”

Zillah’s volleyball, soccer and cross country teams have been practicing on a limited basis, while the football team just got started in mid-November.

Winters and other ADs around the Valley have already rewritten their athletic schedules three times, and they know this may not be the last time. The way things stand right now, winter sports will be held from Feb. 2 to late March; fall sports will play from late March to early May; and spring sports will play from early May to late June.

“We just keep planning and then changing,” he said.

But, as frustrating as the past eight months have been for athletic directors, coaches, athletes and fans, Winters understands why these difficult decisions are being made.

“The health and safety of everyone involved is the most important thing,” he said. “We’ve got a lot bigger things to worry about than having to re-do our schedules.”

Toppenish High AD Brett Stauffer said all of the fall sports programs at his school were holding practices from late October until Nov. 13, but most of the coaches have decided to wait a month to resume formal activities.

“I’m leaving it up to the coaches right now if they want to practice outside, but most of them are planning to bring kids back December 14,” Stauffer said, adding that the fall teams can continue to practice until Jan. 23 due to a WIAA rule change. 

The basketball and wrestling teams also hope to begin practicing indoors Dec. 14. They could conceivably start with outdoor practices, but the weather will have to cooperate.

“Once the snow starts to fall, that could be it,” Stauffer said.

Some ADs around the state are keeping an eye on a proposal that would allow teams to continue practicing indoors if everyone wears masks 100% of the time. WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman has sent an appeal to the governor that would allow indoor activities to continue as long as face coverings are worn nonstop.

“This could be a game-changer,” Stauffer said. “If the athletes wear masks the whole time, that could mean certain sports are considered low-risk. We could do a lot more if that appeal goes through. My goal is just to get the kids playing again.”

He also argues that organized school sports are safer than the non-sanctioned activities high-school athletes around the Valley are reportedly doing in their spare time.

“The kids are safer with us, but these policies are keeping them from us,” Stauffer said. “I feel like we’re denying our kids an opportunity to stay safe. I understand why we’re doing some of these things, but maybe we should consider a different set of rules?”