The 2020-21 school year was a strange time for high school athletics in Washington.
The coronavirus pandemic prevented sports from starting on time, pushing them back until late winter. There were snowy football practices, outdoor basketball games at the fairgrounds in Puyallup, covid cancellations and more. No postseason took place during the 2020-21 school year — there were no district or state tournaments during the shortened seasons, which featured mostly league-only schedules, sometimes with a league tournament to conclude the season.
Football and other traditional fall sports went first, from late winter through early spring. Traditional spring sports like baseball and softball went next; then, the school year concluded with indoor winter sports like basketball and wrestling.
We're not out of the woods yet. The delta variant is causing yet another surge of cases throughout the United States. But with more people vaccinated, the state has opened up for the most part. The Seattle Seahawks and UW will both feature full-capacity crowds at their respective stadiums this year. What will high school sports look like during the 2021-22 school year? Here are some answers to your questions.
Will High School Sports be Returning to a Normal Calendar?
Yes. Football practices will start this month, with games kicking off in September. Other traditional fall sports, like cross country, will return to their regularly-scheduled time of year.
"We are planning to have everything go full-bore," said Silas High School (formerly Wilson) athletic director Johnny Lee. The Rams compete in the Class 3A Pierce County League. "We know more about what's going on with COVID. We feel confident we can put on the best season these kids can have. With the stuff we know now, we can run a full-fledged sports season."
Barring something unforeseen — which, let's face it, wouldn't be shocking given everything the world has been through over the past year and change — fall sports will happen in the fall. Winter sports will happen in the winter, and spring sports will take place in the spring. The seasons will be on the standard timeline and won't be shortened.
Will There be State Tournaments and Will There be Attendance Limits?
Yes, district and state tournaments will return this school year. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) has been hard at work getting things back on track.
"We're securing all our sites (for state tournaments)," said WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman. "We're planning on doing (state) football outdoors in the three high school sites. We're looking at doing volleyball in the traditional big arenas; basketball and wrestling, same things. We're not hearing any talk about restrictions on attendance. We're not going to need to have physical spacing. School districts can go above and beyond for their league play though, if they want."
State football championship games will once again be held at local high school stadiums in Pierce County, while state basketball tournaments will take place in larger arenas such as the Tacoma Dome (for 4A and 3A).
Will Masks be Required for Athletes, Coaches and Fans?
That remains to be seen. The WIAA is awaiting guidance from the Washington state Department of Health, which is expected to be finalized and released this week. With the CDC mandating mask usage for the upcoming school year, it's unclear yet whether participants in extracurricular activities will be required to wear masks.
"Right now, I don't anticipate 100 percent masking in athletics," Hoffman said. "It's a very different setting than even in the classroom. ... There's more flexibility with athletics than there is in the classroom. People are choosing to do athletics."
There's a chance masks will still be required for indoor, high-contact sports like basketball and wrestling, and not mandated for outdoor sports, deemed lower risk.
Will There be a Different Set of Rules for Unvaccinated Vs. Vaccinated Participants?
There very well could be. That component should be clarified in the guidance that is expected to be released soon by the state's health department. Everyone 12 and older is eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Washington, which means all high school athletes are able to get the vaccine if they choose.
While the WIAA cannot mandate students receive the vaccine, Hoffman said, they're encouraging coaches and student-athletes to listen to the science.
"We'll continue to promote (the vaccine) as a viable option," Hoffman said. "Personally, I'd advocate for it, but it's not for me to bring my personal opinions. All the data is showing that the vaccines work."
Simply staying on the field or court could be incentive enough for some participants to get the vaccine.
"It's a personal choice, getting vaccinated or not," Hoffman said. "What we could see is less opportunity for people who aren't vaccinated. They go into quarantine (if they were in close contact with someone who tested positive). ... If a kid is in close contact and they're vaccinated and they test negative, maybe they don't have to quarantine. There could be less options for unvaccinated students."
Lee, Silas' athletic director, said Tacoma Public Schools is doing everything in its power to encourage kids to get vaccinated.
"Obviously, being in a public school, we're not telling people they need to get vaccinated to do sports," Lee said. "But as a district, we're giving people lots of options. We're doing robo-calls to parents, setting up vaccination clinics at Stadium, Lincoln, Foss. We're definitely being a liaison to the community. Where it's tough to get to clinics, we're opening up our buildings. The data is out there. Most people dying from this (virus) are unvaccinated people."
Hoffman also said occasional testing could be required for unvaccinated participants in high-contact sports like basketball and wrestling.
"(The WIAA) would not mandate testing at this point," Hoffman said. "But the state may require regular testing for high-contact sports."