Stadium High School Athletic and Activities Director Melissa Hayes, like many others in her profession, still have more questions than answers when thinking about what a high school fall sports season might look like. Most athletic directors, by nature, are problem solvers. With so many coaches to serve and facilities to coordinate the usage of, they’re used to finding quick solutions when the unexpected happens.
But this — trying to come up with a plan for a sports season during the COVID-19 pandemic? There’s no blueprint for that.
“I’ve never been the athletic director during a pandemic,” Hayes said.
Tacoma Public Schools recently rolled out its reopening options for the fall. None of them include full-time, in-person learning for high school students. So where does that leave athletic directors? It seems difficult to say to a student, ‘You’re not going to be at school every day, but make sure you show up every day to football practice.’
The WIAA recently released its return-to-play guidelines, a document closely resembling the NFHS national guidelines, outlining which safety precautions should be implemented for high school athletics in Washington and which sports would be allowed to resume in which phase of Governor Jay Inslee’s safe state reopening plan, and in what capacity.
It’s full of advice on sanitizing playing areas, limiting participation in practice into small groups of student-athletes, or “pods,” in hopes of promoting social distancing, mask wearing, temperature checks and so on.
Few are arguing the merits of putting aggressive safeguards into place to further prevent the spread of coronavirus, but for Hayes and others, some of the guidelines present legitimate logistical problems.
“How are we going to get the kids to school for sports practice? Normally, they’d already be here,” Hayes said. “As an equity portion, I don’t know how we don’t provide something.”
Hayes said that a large percentage of Stadium’s students live in Northeast Tacoma, adding another layer of importance to efficient bussing — not just for athletics, but for all the school’s extra-curricular activities, like band, theater, etc. A bus full of 50 kids heading out to Northeast Tacoma after soccer practice doesn’t exactly fulfill social distancing requirements.
“Are we going to hire more bus drivers?” Hayes said. “We can’t put 50 kids on a bus. Some of these guidelines from the NFHS, they’re not doable. They’re incredibly unrealistic.”
There are all sorts of logistical issues to consider this fall, if schools are able to field fall sports at all. Already, the WIAA made the decision to push back the start of fall sports two weeks.
But more importantly, the longer kids are out of school, out of athletics, out of real-life, in-person interaction with classmates, teachers and coaches, the more detrimental the impact will be on their collective development.
“The arts and athletics, I believe are imperative to a wholly rounded, well-adjusted child,” Hayes said. “If we don’t have those opportunities for them, I think it’s detrimental. It keeps kids tethered to academics, to being more productive and positive and building them to being great members of the community. If we lose that, I think it’s going to hurt us.”
Kevin Meines, athletic director for Bellarmine Prep, a private, Jesuit high school in Tacoma, said they’re preparing for every possibility, whether it’s full-time, in-person learning, exclusively remote learning, or a hybrid combination of the two. No matter which scenario is put into place, sports will remain a priority for Bellarmine.
“It’s an opportunity for us to use sports for what we say they are,” Meines said. “Character building, all these other things we never have time for because we’re getting ready for the next competition. With athletics and activities, letting the head coaches really dig into, ‘What does it mean for kids using soccer to become better citizens, or doing those kinds of things?’ That might not include competitions with other schools.”
Non-contact football? Intrasquad scrimmages? Skills competitions? Anything and everything is on the table. But even if a sport looks radically different to a normal year, Meines — like Hayes — said he immense value in athletics and activities to the building and maturation of young men and women.
“We’re really focusing on, ‘What does it mean to be a Bellarmine athlete?’” Meines said. “How can all our programs support that mission? How can we all pitch in and find a way, in a really difficult time for our kids, where they’re feeling isolated, feeling alone, bridging that gap with different teams and activities? We just need to get out of the mindset of the same old, same old — this is what sports looks like. … With all of our coaches, we’re really encouraging them to think outside the box.”
There are no obvious answers amid the pandemic, no clean solutions to tackling how to approach in-person learning this fall. But many athletic directors in the area are hoping sports don’t become a casualty as school boards and administrators look to finalize plans in the next month.
“Co-curriculars are no more or less important than a math class, or the music department; all these things help educate the whole person,” Meines said. “I think if we can’t have games, we’re just going to abandon it? I think that sells kids short. … We’re missing out on so much teaching the kids the things we tell them are important through sports. Games aren’t the end-all be-all. Now we have to put our money where our mouth is and really give these kids a great experience.”