The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s new COVID-19 guidelines for the 2021-22 high school sports season are causing a stir among athletes and coaches.
Some of the key changes from last year’s guidelines open the opportunity for players with no symptoms to present negative tests to come out of quarantine after 10 days rather than 14.
Teams as a whole can have a shorter quarantine period – 10 days from last known exposure – if an outbreak were to occur.
But vaccinated coaches and players are excused from quarantine as long as they do not present virus symptoms.
“We worked with our Sports Medicine Advisory Committee,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said. “They are our doctors, and they are in tune with what is going on across the board. Vaccinations are available – that wasn’t the case last year. Just about all of our athletes are old enough to receive the shot.
“The intention is, really, we would like to have teams not cancel games.”
With the start of the high school football season only a few weeks away and COVID numbers rising, the AIA, like other entities, cannot to mandate vaccines.
The state law banning mask mandates by schools left it with the option to only “strongly encourage” mitigation strategies like masks and vaccines.
But the rise in cases has coaches erring on the side of caution and having honest talks with players about vaccines.
For some coaches, like Mesa wrestling coach David DiDomenico, the new guidelines have brought up more questions. His main concern: how to not overstep his boundary as coach when talking to athletes about their vaccination status.
“How do I ask them if they are vaccinated?” DiDomenico said. “I don’t think that’s any of my business, but it’s something I will have to ask. As a head coach I think it’s one more thing we have to do, and we can’t really delegate it.”
DiDomenico and his program navigated through last year’s season virtually unscathed. They didn’t have to cancel any matches due to active cases within the program.
He said he has had brief conversations with his team about the guidelines and what they mean for those who decide to get vaccinated. Those conversations have stirred up others with athletes and their parents.
Aaliayah Bonds, a senior on the Mesa wrestling team, has so far navigated through summer wrestling matches without issue. And she’s thankful for that. Last year, she didn’t have the opportunity to compete until winter sports began.
“My parents are of course worried about my health,” Bonds said. “These new guidelines, we did a lot of the same things last year. Really, staying clean and staying home if I’m sick is the biggest thing. I’m just thankful to have been able to wrestle this summer.
“Last year, I didn’t do any, everything was canceled. But I’ve been able to be consistent this year. I’ve had 48 matches so far and my goal is 50.”
Another athlete in the Mesa Unified School District, who asked to remain anonymous, said he and his parents had long conversations about the benefits of getting the vaccine: He wouldn’t have to miss school, practices or matches if he were deemed to be a close contact and didn’t have symptoms.
Even if symptoms did arise, they would likely be mild.
They weighed the pros and cons as a family and ultimately decided to get their first round of a two-dose vaccine last week. They will receive their second shot on Aug. 30. Two weeks later, they will be considered fully vaccinated.
“We thought it was a good idea, especially since we are really serious about my future,” the athlete said. “Having to quarantine for 14 days if I was a close contact wouldn’t be a good thing for me. It gives me a great deal of confidence to know that I will be safe. Hopefully the people around me are also being safe.”
Conversations such as that with families have begun in other surrounding districts.
Gilbert head football coach Derek Zellner has stopped short of making any recommendations to his players.
“We do our best to preach hygiene, hand sanitizer, safe decisions, washing hands,” Zellner said. “When we’re not together I tell them, ‘Hey, be smart, make good choices. Don’t make any dumb decisions that’s going to jeopardize your season or any games for yourself or any of your teammates.’”
Other East Valley coaches are taking similar approaches with athletes.
Chandler head coach Rick Garretson has emphasized the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact to his players. He and Chandler High School Athletic Director Jim Culver have spoken with the Wolves about ways to be proactive and safe.
“Communication makes the world go round,” Garretson said. “We have that ultimate communication and Jim Culver is very in tune with being proactive on things. We try to stay ahead of the game so that we don’t have things… that would close a team down for a week or two.”
Lucas Ramirez, the head boys basketball coach at Saguaro, has made communication and transparency with his players a priority throughout the pandemic.
Ahead of the 2021 campaign, he is having honest talks with student athletes.
“We are one community,” said Ramirez, who is vaccinated. “But at the end of the day, there are choices that every student athlete and their families have to make and whatever that decision is, hopefully they think it’s the best decision for themselves, their family, their team and the school community as a whole.”
Several programs have already felt the effects of rising cases and a more infectious variant, including two in the East Valley.
Desert Vista recently came back from a 10-day quarantine after six cases were confirmed positive on the varsity and junior varsity programs and 16 others were identified as close contacts. Higley’s junior varsity and varsity teams are due back from a 10-day quarantine on Tuesday after “multiple” confirmed positive cases were identified.
Hines estimates well over 90 percent of all sports contests were played last season – a number he was happy with given the circumstances. This year, he hopes for no cancellations.
“Whatever normal is nowadays,
we want that,” Hines said. “We want more students to be involved, participation numbers up and more support for those athletes from their classmates. It was great to see in the spring people supporting these kids. We want to build on that.”