OKANOGAN – Okanogan and neighboring counties moved to Phase 2 under the state COVID-19 reopening plan Feb. 14, and with the change came the go-ahead to start school sports.
The first competitions are planned Feb. 27 in the north central region and this week in the east region, which includes Ferry County.
But the change is tempered with uncertainty since the state Department of Health will evaluate regions every two weeks and could send them back to Phase 1 if virus recovery metrics aren’t met. School sports were suspended in March 2020 when schools were shut down because of COVID-19.
First up for competition are traditional fall sports, known this year as Season 1 under the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s reopening plan.
“Now that we are in Phase 2, all of our fall programs are a go for at least the next two weeks,” said Kevin Daling, Okanogan School District athletic director. “Each region is evaluated every two weeks, and the possibility of sliding back to Phase 1 does exist.”
If that were to happen cross country would be the only program that could continue with competitions.
“If we had to go back to Phase 1 all our other programs would continue to practice in the hopes of being able to resume contests were we to return to Phase 2,” said Daling.
High school football practice began Feb. 16. Cross country, volleyball girls’ soccer, cheerleading and middle school football are slated to begin Feb. 22. Middle school volleyball and cross country begin practicing March 1.
Reopening phases – and sports competition areas – are by regions. Okanogan shares a region with Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties. Ferry County is with Stevens, Pend Oreille, Lincoln, Spokane, Adams, Whitman, Garfield and Asotin counties.
All counties in the state are in Phase 1, as of Feb. 15.
“With us moving to Phase 2, we are allowed to have competition, and all sports will kick off on Saturday, the 27th” of February, said Greg Austin, athletic director for the Brewster School District. “We are doing a regional schedule with tiers. Should be interesting.”
Curlew High School plans to start competitions this week, at least for volleyball, said Athletic Director Bonnie Grumbach. A cross country meet in Spokane, planned for Feb. 13, was canceled because of snow.
“Unfortunately, our football field is still covered in snow,” she said.
Another change is a limit on fans.
“One common rule all will need to follow will be capping attendance at 200 individual bodies per event,” said Austin.
That doesn’t mean 200 fans – it means 200 total people, including team members, coaches, officials, announcer and so on.
“We here at Brewster will allow parents of the players only, to start with,” Austin said.
“The 200-person attendance figure is intended to include all players, staff, spectators, etc., which obviously requires athletic directors to make some very difficult decisions in this regard,” said Casey Johnson of WIAA. “Each member school has a different situation and potentially different policies from the school district, so these 200 spots will be at the discretion of each AD.”
In Pateros, the school board has decided each athlete will get two tickets to give to people to watch games in person. A high-quality video feed is planned so additional spectators can watch.
“Most schools are not allowing guest visitors into their games,” said Grumbach. “Curlew is only allowing our home crowd at 25 percent occupancy.”
“We are really hoping to allow spectators at some point,” said Daling. “However, we will begin the fall season without spectators. In light of all that has transpired with COVID, our focus must be on the student athletes and returning them to practices and competitions in as safe an environment as possible.
“We also cannot risk a school closure due to an outbreak. Our top priority is the health and safety of not only our student athletes, but all students at Okanogan Middle and High School.”
Like Pateros, Okanogan plans to offer a live stream of its events. Curlew is exploring the possibility.
“Anyone with an Internet connection will be able to access our games,” Daling said. “Most other schools in our region are offering live streaming as well, so people will have the availability to watch most of our home and away games.”
In anticipation of the change to Phase 2, members of the North Central Region High School Athletic Directors of Washington came to tentative agreement a few weeks ago on restarting sports. The organization spans three competition districts within WIAA and seven athletic leagues.
Metrics will be evaluated weekly, and will dictate whether teams within the region can play contests, and what the following week’s practice limitations will be, said the regional group.
“The schools have elected to seek this regional opportunity to schedule interscholastic athletic competitions, across classifications, this COVID school year,” said the announcement. “Obviously not all schools carry teams in each of the sports.
WIAA Season 1 will span seven weeks.
Season 2 will be spring sports of track and field, boys’ soccer, fastpitch softball and baseball. Season 3, extending into mid-June, is slated to be winter sports of basketball and wrestling.
North central region middle school/junior high sports also are planned.
In Curlew and Republic’s region, no middle school/junior high sports are planned, although eighth-graders are able to play on high school teams, according to Curlew.
WIAA has set rules for practices and games, including protocols for masks, physical distancing and so on. In rule modifications announced last week, cross country runners may drop their masks once a race begins, and facilities with more than one field or area of play may have a maximum of 75 people per area of play, including spectators.
According to the state Department of Health, Washington is seeing fairly low levels of COVID-19 transmission within school settings so far. Among kindergarten through 12th grade public and private schools across the state that had experienced a COVID-19 outbreak from Aug. 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020:
-13 counties reported COVID-19 outbreaks associated with schools.
-84 kindergarten through 12th grade schools experienced outbreaks.
-305 cases were associated with outbreaks in schools.
-64 percent of outbreaks involved two or three cases.
-50 percent of COVID cases were students age 18 or under.
The Chronicle contacted all schools in its coverage area for comment. Not all replied by deadline.