Updated: Jan. 20
LBHS basketball and wrestling competitions resume as COVID cases drop
By Marcy Stamper
After a six-day suspension of high school basketball and wrestling competition because of a high number of COVID cases, games are back on as of Thursday (Jan. 20), Liberty Bell Athletic Director Michael Wilbur said in a letter to athletes and school families Wednesday night.
The decision to resume competition came after Wilbur and Liberty Bell High School Principal Crosby Carpenter met with team captains for both the boys’ and girls’ basketball programs at the captains’ request. The captains acknowledged the challenges, but “spoke powerfully to the importance of basketball in their lives and their desire to return to competition in the safest manner possible,” Wilbur said in the letter.
A downward trend in positive COVID cases among athletes and the return of a substantial number from isolation or quarantine helped inform the decision to resume play, Wilbur said.
“While we’re certainly not out of the woods yet, we’re moving forward after deliberating carefully, with a renewed confidence that we can continue athletics without jeopardizing our ability to maintain in-person instruction for all of our students,” he said.
The school also changed its policy on spectators, who’d been banned from attending games as part of the suspension as a measure of additional caution. Attendance will be limited to home fans and all will be required to wear masks.
COVID testing for all athletes in winter sports will move back to three times per week as mandated by state rules for K-12 athletics.
The first games – basketball at Manson and girls’ wrestling at Othello – are on Friday (Jan. 21). The school is rescheduling games affected by the temporary suspension.
The district will reassess the spectator policy on Jan. 26.
High school basketball games and wrestling matches have been put on hold for at least a week because of increasing COVID infections among student athletes and coaches.
Methow Valley Superintendent Tom Venable made the decision to suspend athletic competition through Thursday (Jan. 20). Coaches, athletes and parents were notified by Athletic Director Michael Wilbur on Friday (Jan. 14). The suspension affects home and away games.
The district will re-evaluate the situation and hopes to resume play on Friday (Jan. 21). Even if it’s safe to resume athletics later this week, spectators will not be allowed to attend home games.
Venable made the decision with a focus on the district’s primary goal – to promote the health and wellness of the community and keep schools open to support all students, he said. He and Wilbur said it wasn’t an easy decision.
The suspension wasn’t required by Okanogan County Public Health, but the school district consulted with Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones and Health Officer James Wallace, who said the decision was timely and prudent, Venable said.
Jones and Wallace have been consulting with all school districts and school nurses in the county about the recent rise in COVID cases, Wallace said by email.
“MVSD [the Methow Valley School District] has been impressive in their response to the pandemic from the beginning and has consistently made decisions with the priority of protecting students and staff and doing all that they can to preserve in-person learning,” Wallace said. “They saw significant [COVID] increases in athletic participants (students and staff) this week that surpassed anything they experienced with Delta.”
Although Venable couldn’t provide an exact number of COVID cases or exposures, the school has identified more positive cases since the return from winter break than throughout the entire fall term. They’re concerned that there could be other cases in the community that the district isn’t aware of, he said.
Many of the COVID cases have been among students involved in basketball and wrestling. School officials suspect that these cases have spread to other students and staff, Venable said.
There are 29 students involved in basketball and wrestling. In addition, there are 33 girls in girls’ basketball, which started after winter break.
Teams are allowed to practice, although high school wrestling put workouts on hold out of an abundance of caution, Wilbur said.
School attendance has dropped from an average of 86% to 75%, because of illness, exposures requiring quarantine, and decisions by some families to keep students out of school until they believe it’s safe, Venable said.
Schools make own decisions
Rather than impose uniform standards, Public Health supports school districts to monitor their individual situations and make decisions accordingly.
“While I’ve supported school districts in their decisions to close classrooms, close in-person instruction and pause extracurricular events or participation, we’ve not applied specific standards because each and every case has been different. When schools tell us that they are able to hold class, events and sports safely without risking a great increase in transmission, we trust and support them in doing so and contribute our experience and knowledge to that end,” Wallace said.
If a district determines that it’s unsafe to hold events, and that events could threaten in-person instruction, Public Health recommends ways to mitigate risk until safety can be restored, Wallace said.
By acting quickly, the district hopes to avoid the situation faced by other local districts. The Omak School District recently had to temporarily close their middle and high schools to in-person instruction because of inadequate staffing, Venable said.
Okanogan County has seen the impact of the Omicron surge elsewhere in the state. Omicron very rapidly causes a high number of cases, which threatens the capacity of health care systems and critical infrastructure – including schools, Wallace said.
“I anticipate a continued increase in cases over the next three weeks at least, with individuals who are unvaccinated and not boosted having greater risk of illness and more severe disease. I am most concerned about vulnerable individuals in our communities, and the capacity of our health care systems to adequately serve them,” he said.
Venable made it clear that their top priority is to protect in-person instruction, but that they are also concerned about impacts on the community at large and the health care system, Wallace said.
Health officers from Okanogan County and the other school districts in North Central Washington from Chelan-Douglas, Grant and Kittitas counties issued new athletic safety guidelines earlier this month. The guidelines mandate masks for all athletes, staff and spectators at indoor events and restrict attendance to 50% of capacity. Anyone with COVID symptoms or who has been advised to isolate or quarantine is prohibited from attending as a participant or spectator.