The recent surge in Washington of cases involving the omicron variant of COVID-19 has led to speculation on social media and elsewhere that the high-school winter-sports season may be in jeopardy.
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association and the Washington State Department of Health this week said that such speculation is unfounded.
“I think there are a lot of people making assumptions,” WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman said.
Those assumptions have arisen amid a number of cancellations and postponements, especially over the past three weeks. The week before Christmas, a few teams slated to play in the inaugural Hardwood Invite basketball tournament, won by Garfield over host Auburn, were unable to participate due to positive COVID tests.
Also in December, the DOH investigated multiple outbreaks linked to wrestling tournaments.
But the WIAA currently has no plans to change anything for the postseason, which begins the first week in February with girls bowling and cheerleading and runs through boys swimming, wrestling, basketball and finally drill and dance the final week of March.
“Unless we get new guidance that changes postseason stuff, we’re operating business as usual,” WIAA communications director Casey Johnson said. “There aren’t enough cancellations or requests from (member schools) to change things. We’re operating with the guidelines that are in front of us.”
Those guidelines were reaffirmed, Johnson said, during a standing meeting the organization has with the DOH that was held Thursday morning. Hoffman said one aspect of the guidelines was debated.
“Currently, the governor’s proclamation limiting attendance for indoor events has an exemption for K-12 events,” DOH Communications officer Ginny Streeter said in an email. “Local public health officials do have the authority to implement more restrictive guidance if they feel that is needed in their jurisdiction.”
The exemption is to the rule that requires proof of vaccination for crowds of more than 1,000 people. As of Thursday, the exemption has not been rescinded.
“The DOH makes recommendations to the Governor’s office, which makes the final decisions,” Hoffman said. “We are in charge of implementing those decisions. It’s been an awesome working relationship.”
The DOH concurs.
“DOH has a good working relationship with the WIAA, that supports both DOH and the Governor’s requirements and proclamations,” Streeter said in the email. “The ultimate goal for all involved is to ensure the safety and wellness of our student athletes, coaches, support staff and spectators and we work very closely to remove as many risk factors as possible.”
Those risk factors include spectators who are reluctant or refuse to follow the rules.
“We’ve been begging people to wear masks,” Hoffman said. “Our athletic directors and staff are getting yelled at, screamed at. It’s a small group that is going to screw it up for everybody. Unfortunately, the people following the rules get punished, too. If (omicron) is going to be that contagious, we may just have to not let people in. But at least the kids can compete.”
While the situation hasn’t risen to that level yet, and the WIAA has no plans to alter formats or cancel postseason events, Hoffman said they would consider moving events from larger arenas to smaller gymnasiums should the guidelines change and/or spectator participation have to be curtailed. Such contingency plans are not expected to be used, he said.
Those decisions are for competition beyond the regular season. Until then, decisions remain with school districts and individual schools.
Late on Wednesday, Seattle Public Schools released its revised “Spectator Policy” for the remainder of the regular-season winter schedule.
Phase One runs at least until Jan. 22, and restricts spectators at SPS events to 0-25% of gym capacity, but Seattle Public Schools plans to permit no spectators. Non-SPS schools that are hosting SPS teams (such as private schools that also make up the Metro League) will determine their own gym capacity.
Phase Two, from Jan. 24 to Feb. 4, will permit 0-50% of capacity. Phase Three simply states, “As we move closer to the postseason, we will evaluate the fan policy and adjust accordingly.”
Cheerleaders (maximum of 8) are not considered fans and are permitted into contests.
“What we’re seeing is schools evaluating their own spectator policies,” Hoffman said.
By the time the playoffs roll around, the WIAA hopes that the surge from omicron will have peaked.
“It’s more that we’re fighting the unknown,” Hoffman said. “We’re trying to figure out, how do we coexist with this as we have with the flu?”