Local high schools have begun workouts while adhering to strict pandemic regulations. The Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association is allowing schools to hold workouts from Sept. 28 to Nov. 30.

This is the first step in returning to play. Under the WIAA time frame, several sports, including football, have been moved from the regular fall season to a spring season that would start March 1. The WIAA has the modified sports season schedules posted under its COVID-19 plan.

Under the updated WIAA guidelines, a county must be in Phase 3 of the governor’s Safe Start plan to resume play. Skagit County remains in Phase 2. The first season that local athletes might be able to participate in would start on Dec. 28. Sports would include boys’ and girls’ basketball, swimming and wrestling.

The current workouts are a way for high school athletes to prepare for that possibility.

“Small steps,” said Burlington-Edison athletic director Don Beazizo. “With big benefits.”

There are benefits beyond simply being active, said Chris Oliver, Mount Vernon athletic director.

“Coaches, players, everybody misses that connection with the kids,” Oliver said. “I think everyone is missing that. This is the first step back to some normalcy.”

Workouts are not mandatory and are open to all students.

“I’ve heard from parents that the mental health issues outweigh the risk of COVID in their eyes. So they are willing to support this and move forward,” Beazizo said.

There will be rigorous parameters. For starters, athletes will work out in mutually exclusive pods of five while keeping 6 feet of distance between each other and 35 feet from another pod.

That doesn’t mean the pods will be COVID-proof.

Despite precautions taken in both college and professional sports, COVID-19 infections have been problematic, forcing cancellations and postponements of games and practices. The NBA is currently playing in a “bubble” where anyone involved is isolated while also being monitored and routinely tested for COVID-19.

The Pac-12 recently made the decision to return to play with a modified schedule, instituting rapid testing for athletes and staff.

Most recently, the National Football League rescheduled a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans after the Titans had positive tests following their game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Guidelines from the Washington State Health Department, Governor’s Office, Skagit County Public Health, risk management and individual school districts are being followed as local schools begin the first steps of returning to play.

Burlington-Edison, Concrete and La Conner high schools are proceeding with indoor and outdoor workouts, allowing those to be sport specific, meaning coaches can train their own players.

“We will be going full gamut of facilities, just limited to pods of five,” Beazizo said.

Training will be both indoors and outdoors.

“We are sticking with all necessary protocols and just expanding those to the gym and mat room, as well as outdoors,” Beazizo said.

Concrete athletic director Randy Sweeney said his school will also start with pods of five in a sports-specific model.

“Sports played outdoors will be outdoors; sports played indoors will be indoors,” he said. “They will be sport specific, which is good for us. The inability to practice with a full squad is frustrating for us because we’re transitioning from 11-man to eight-man football.”

La Conner athletic director Kathy Herrera said the school is following all safety precautions and has instituted a daily drive-thru health screening before athletes are allowed on campus. They are given a colored wrist band to show they have been through the screening.

The Braves have also deployed a new ultraviolet sanitizer on sports equipment to kill lingering germs between pod practices.

Mount Vernon is allowing for sport-specific workouts to be held outdoors to err on the side of caution.

Sedro-Woolley High School will hold outdoors-only workouts, not specific to one sport.

“The Sedro-Woolley School District is not allowing any activities inside right now,” said athletic director Jerry Gardner. “All our conditioning programs are built on working on a half of the field, outside, on the turf, so that is what we are doing. The same workouts. So we are not allowed to bring kids inside yet.”

Anacortes is returning to small-pod, sport-specific practices.

The bottom line is the eventual return to full-fledged sports following the WIAA’s return-to-play plans. Each sport has specific guidelines available to review on the WIAA website. Precautions for each sport are extensive, going as far as explaining how to sanitize equipment.

“Our goal is to get kids back,” Gardner said. “If we rush it, we aren’t going to be able to do sports. We don’t want that. We’re happy to take our time. We’ve certainly done some learning on our end.

“My next step is to be able to at least keep this conditioning going and have it eventually move indoors, so we are not weather dependent. That will be our next baby step.”

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