The new AIA guidelines

The new AIA guidelines allow players to avoid quarantine if they are fully vaccinated and do not have symptoms of the virus if they are exposed. Just this week, Higley’s football program was sent into 10-day quarantine due to an outbreak.

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 once again has coaches erring on the side of caution. 

“We do our best to preach hygiene, hand sanitizer, safe decisions, washing hands,” Gilbert football coach Derek Zellner said. “We’re just excited to be able to be out playing and have a full schedule since a lot of those guys didn’t get that opportunity last year. 

“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.’” 

Zellner has left it up to families to decide what is best for their athletes. Like all coaches, he has no plans to go beyond simply educating his players on the current state of the pandemic and to have them exercise caution. 

An athlete in Gilbert said while he hasn’t received the vaccine, he knows other mitigation strategies he can use to hopefully avoid being sidelined by the virus this season. 

“We know what is going on around us,” said the athlete, who wished to remain anonymous. “I’m going to do whatever I have to do to play. People say if you get the vaccine, you’re a bad person, or whatever. If I had to get it to play, I would. Right now, we are just focusing on practice and getting ready for the season.”

Elsewhere in the East Valley, coaches are taking similar tones with athletes. 

Mesa wrestling coach David 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. 

An athlete in Mesa 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 one of the two-dose vaccines available in the 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.”

Chandler head coach Rick Garretson has emphasized the seriousness of the 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.

While masks can’t be forced in indoor spaces, Garretson recently said all of his players were wearing masks indoors. Additionally, he said 90 percent of his staff is vaccinated, including himself. 

He can tell by the looks on his player’s faces that they understand the implications of the pandemic on high school football.

“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 Arizona programs have already felt the effects of rising cases and a more infectious variant, including two in the East Valley. 

Higley’s junior varsity and varsity teams are due back from a 10-day quarantine on Tuesday after “multiple” confirmed positive cases were identified. 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. 

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.”