Op/Ed: School Sports and Activities Needed Now More than Ever

Ever since I was lucky enough to become the 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, large or small, 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 this virus 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% 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% 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 the Governor’s recommendation. At the time, we had little information on the risk of extracurricular activities in relation to COVID. 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% 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 COVID-19 cases were attributed to participation.

Right here 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 of those came from community transmission, outside of sport.

These examples of students returning to sports are not meant to diminish the havoc and loss that 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 already been done. These are challenging times, absolutely, but there is no hiding from this pandemic.

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 our schools as well. Administrators in large school districts are reporting three times the number of students earning failing grades this year with all the challenges we face. 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-preservation or self-interest. While the WIAA itself has taken a financial hit during the pandemic, I am confident the organization is positioned to 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. The state of Washington has demonstrated we can develop and execute safety measures during the pandemic. Our athletic directors and coaches have proven 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. 

Not to mention 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 as I write this, we are seeing another surge in COVID cases around the country as well as in Washington, and that we may need to wait before we begin competition again. But we cannot wait until COVID goes away because students don’t have that luxury.

They’re running out of time to make memories.

Mick Hoffman, WIAA Executive Director

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