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WIAA: School sports activities needed now more than never

Ever since I was lucky enough to become executive director at the WIAA, I’ve told our staff and membership that we are in the memory-making business. Those memories can be made in any town in any sport or activity, at a mid-week practice, a senior night or a state championship final.

As a former coach and teacher, I had the opportunity to be a part of those memories, and I’ve seen firsthand that high school is defined as much by what you learn outside of the classroom as what you learn in it.

Coaches and athletic directors, along with those of us at the WIAA, have long championed the value of education-based athletics and activities. Everyone has heard how competition can build character, teach discipline and life lessons, and connect students with peers and their communities. These are more than just talking points or “coach-speak” because now, in the absence of these extracurricular activities, it has never been more clear how much they are needed.

Parents can see the outsized toll this sudden change in life has taken on our kids. It has diminished our sense of joy, created anxiety over our safety and wellbeing, and stolen what will soon be a full year of our lives. While there is conclusive evidence about the physical dangers of COVID-19 among certain age groups and demographics, the governor’s office and Department of Health must factor in the impact restrictions have on our students’ mental and emotional health.

A University of Wisconsin study found in July that approximately 68 percent of 3,243 student-athletes surveyed, which included Washington students, reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention. That was a 37 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

We are fighting a disease we have never seen before, and one we know little about. This fall, schools in Washington chose not to offer sports and activities in accordance with Gov. Jay Insee’s recommendation. At the time, we had little information on the risk of extracurricular activities in relation to COVID-19. Now, research from around the country allows us to make decisions on real data.

The University of Wisconsin found that, in a sample of 30,000 high school athletes, only 271 COVID-19 cases were reported with 0.5 percent of those cases traced back to sports contact. In New Jersey, EDP Soccer managed 10 youth soccer tournaments in the state as well as multiple soccer leagues along the East Coast. In approximately 318,500 games, no coronavirus cases were attributed to participation.

In Washington, Seattle United Soccer Club had 1,930 boys and girls participate in its programs this summer for two months of training. In total, two of those players contracted the virus and both came from community transmission, outside of sport.

Those examples are not meant to diminish the havoc this virus has caused. They are meant to show that if we work together and take the proper precautions, we can return to offering these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We know this because it has been done.

We’ve heard the hesitancy among superintendents: “How can we offer athletics when we haven’t returned to in-person learning?” This is not a logistical question. It is a question regarding optics and politics. I understand the hesitancy based on the stance of their communities. However, we must focus on the values and interconnectivity of extracurricular activities.

Education-based sports and activities have always been a key component of our school system. We cannot eliminate one portion of a student’s education because we had to modify another. Aside from the inherent values that come with athletic and activity participation, students who compete in high school have shown to achieve higher grades, increase motivation and engagement, and improve the overall high school experience.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from schools as well. Administrators in large school districts are reporting three times the number of students earning failing grades this year. Students are not attending on a regular basis or, in some cases, at all. This has been a difficult time for students, teachers and everyone working to educate our children. Returning to competition will not be a cure-all, but, in a time where students have become disconnected from their education, we know athletics and activities can help them re-engage.

This call to action is not coming from a place of self-interest. While the WIAA has taken a financial hit, I am confident the organization will survive these hard times and thrive when we return to normality. A return to play this year without fans in attendance likely makes for a more difficult financial situation.

But that is not what this is about.

We have seen education-based athletics and activities take place successfully throughout the country. Washington has demonstrated we can develop and execute safety measures. Our athletic directors and coaches have proved they are committed to ensuring the safety of student-participants and complying with state-mandated regulations.

We must allow students to participate under the supervision of their school leaders and coaches, and the WIAA is prepared to assist in navigating that process. There is no safer place for a student than our schools, before and during this pandemic.

Schools offer the most equitable opportunities for students of all skill levels and financial means. Restricting the ability of schools forces students and families to pursue avenues that are cost prohibitive and have fewer safety measures.

I understand that we are seeing another surge in COVID-19, and that we may need to wait before we begin competition again. But we cannot wait until COVID-19 goes away because students don’t have that luxury.

They’re running out of time to make memories.

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