State loosens guidelines around prep sports in time for school year

With state tournaments and mask-free games in their future, student-athletes and coaches looking forward to ‘regular season’

With the return of full regular-season schedules, state tournaments and mask-free competition, many prep sports in Camas and Washougal will look and feel more familiar this year.

“It looks like we’re getting a little bit back to normalcy as far as what athletics should look like. It’s exciting,” Washougal High School football coach Dave Hajek said two days before his team’s first practice of the 2021 season on Aug. 18. “As a society, we’ve learned more about (COVID-19), and that’s why we have some of the guidelines that we have.”

Hajek said masking was “necessary, but kind of a nuisance.”

“We’re all excited to be back with sports and back at school and have the chance to start to get back to what we love,” Hajek said.

Camas High School’s football teams also began practicing on Aug. 18. The rest of the Papermakers’ and Panthers’ falls sports squads will hold their first workout sessions next week.

“We’re looking at a ‘regular’ season of athletics, so I’m super excited about that,” Camas High athletic director Rory Oster said. “We’ve created great schedules for our teams, who are going to travel and play some awesome competition. I’m excited that we get a real season with full schedules and playoffs at the end. It’s great. It’s where the kids need to be right now.”

All of the local squads played condensed, postseason-free schedules during the 2020-21 school year, with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) requiring student-athletes in the vast majority of sports to wear masks during competition.

According to updated health guidelines released Aug. 11 by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), masks will not be required to compete in outdoor sports but are recommended in settings where unvaccinated athletes, coaches, athletic trainers and/or support personnel are in close proximity during the 2021-22 school year.

“You have to know where and when to wear a mask. You have to know what to do in certain situations,” said Hajek, also the Panthers’ track and field coach. “It makes our jobs a little harder, but I will say the kids so far have done a great job of adapting to what we’ve asked them to do without much problem. They’re like us — they don’t want to wear masks. But most people realize we have to do what’s best for our society, so if that means wearing masks, we’ll wear masks. If that means we don’t have to, we won’t.”

The DOH guidelines state masks are not required for athletes while competing in low-contact or moderate-contact indoor sports regardless of vaccination status, but are required for unvaccinated athletes in high-contact indoor sports such as basketball and wrestling, and encouraged for all athletes while practicing indoors.

“Everything we’ve learned the last year-and-a-half (revolves around) the constant moving goalposts,” Oster said. “While they say ‘This is what needs to happen for wrestling and basketball,’ that’s so far off that I’m not putting too much stock in planning for that yet.

Student-athletes and their coaches will be required to wear masks while riding buses to sports events, per the new DOH guidelines, which also recommend bus riders be seated in cohorts separated by at least three feet when possible, and that bus windows be opened for increased ventilation whenever possible.

The DOH requires all spectators, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks while attending indoor sporting events and recommends they be seated in “family units” spaced at least three feet apart. The guidelines do not require spectators to wear masks at outdoor events and allow local school districts to implement their own requirements or recommendations.

“My questions are mainly revolving around spectators and what that potentially looks like,” Oster said. “The only thing I know for sure is that for any indoor sports, all spectators will have to wear masks. Outside of that, I don’t have the final answers from the people that I need to get them from.”

Fully vaccinated athletes and staff members identified as close contacts to an exposure should be tested three to five days following a known exposure to someone suspected or confirmed COVID-19 positive and wear a mask for 14 days or until they receive a negative test, according to the guidelines.

Unvaccinated athletes and staff members identified as close contacts should quarantine immediately, according to the guidelines, which also state that unvaccinated athletes in high-contact indoor sports such as basketball and wrestling will require screening testing in order to compete.

Oster said a student-athlete’s vaccination status “doesn’t really change the dynamic for our fall activities,” but may alter some indoor sporting events during the winter.

“What may come into play, if things stay status quo, is those high-risk indoor sports such as basketball and wrestling — the vaccination status might (allow) a kid to take off a mask during competition or keep it on,” Oster said. “And in a close-contact situation, if a (vaccinated) student is quarantined, they don’t necessarily have to miss any time, whereas if they’re unvaccinated they might have to miss some practices and maybe some games while they go through the quarantine process.”

COVID-19 vaccines are free and readily available at pharmacies and medical clinics to all Washingtonians age 12 and older.

The WIAA is planning to resume its traditional end-of-season state tournaments, according to Hajek and Oster. Hajek is a member of the state’s 2A football seeding committee and said the committee members have already met and talked about state tournaments “as if we’re going to have them.”

“The whole scenario of the WIAA saying, ‘We’re going to have state tournaments and we’re going to crown state champions’ brings a whole other level of excitement to what’s going on,” Oster said. “That was big for them to announce that.”

Oster said his goal is to make this school year feel more normal for his student-athletes.

“Hopefully, things keep trending fine and we get support from the state and the Department of Health to be able to do that for the kids,” Oster said, adding that the start of the 2021-22 school year already feels much different than the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. “It feels much more exciting.”