On April 21, 2020, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) Board of Control voted to cancel the 2020 spring sports regular season and tournament competitions. While this news did not come as a surprise, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and Wisconsin’s Safer-at-Home Order, the WIAA’s decision does not make this most recent development any less devastating for student-athletes and communities. However, the WIAA has outlined methods by which coaches can still virtually connected with their players and extend the opportunities for spring sports to resume, in a limited fashion, during summer.
The most recent Safer-at-Home Order (Emergency Order #28) closed all Wisconsin schools and cancelled all extracurricular activities through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The WIAA responded by determining that “coaches may not bring students together or encourage students to assemble for extracurricular purposes, which includes competitions, practices and all instruction[ ] and training until the restrictions on assembling in groups are removed.” However, the WIAA’s decision to cancel the spring sports season also included an option to extend unrestricted contact between student-athletes and coaches into the summer for spring sports. As described by the WIAA:
This action will permit school teams that include the current year’s seniors to assemble and conduct practices and competitions for up to 30 days, provided restrictions on assembling in groups are removed, until the start of a student-athlete’s fall sport season. The extension of the summertime coaching contact is only available to students who are currently enrolled in ninth through 12th grades during the 2020 spring seasons.
All sports’ acclimatization regulations remain unchanged prior to the first competition as does the pitch count during the 30-day window. In addition, a day of rest after six consecutive contact days remains unchanged, and all traditional nonschool participation can be conducted simultaneously during the summertime, provided restrictions on assembling in groups are removed. Furthermore, if schools engage in competitions, the required number of WIAA licensed officials also remains unchanged.
All spring sports competitions scheduled during the expansion of unrestricted summertime provisions will require approval from district administrators of all competing schools. In addition, spring sports teams assembling without the current year’s seniors participating shall be limited to five days of unrestricted summertime contact, which is the same as fall and winter sports.
The WIAA has identified July 1, 2020, as the earliest possible date that this unrestricted contact may begin, notwithstanding any modification to the Safer-at-Home Order.
In the meantime, while in-person coaching, practice, and competition is now prohibited, the WIAA provides that:
Spring sports coaches may continue to provide individual virtual instruction for student-athletes with training, conditioning and skill development until the end of the respective spring sports season, which is the final day of the scheduled 2020 State Tournament for the respective sport.
For fall and winter athletics “contact may begin July 1–provided restrictions on assembling in groups are removed–and will follow the existing prescribed summertime dates and unrestricted contact regulations with a maximum of five days of contact.”
The WIAA has also encouraged all coaches to connect with their student-athletes virtually for organizational team meetings and team building exercises. However, fall and winter coaches must remain mindful that any mandated activities or instruction of any kind are prohibited during this time, as these sports remain out of season.
The ultimate decision regarding virtual contact with student-athletes during current school closures rests with the school district administration, not individual coaches. While many coaches may have heard of the recent WIAA decision and wish to immediately proceed with virtual contact, administrators are advised to communicate with coaches to ensure that virtual contact does not commence until the district decides if, and in what ways, coaches will be permitted to interact with student-athletes while the Safer-at-Home order remains in place.
Once a school district has chosen to proceed with virtual contact between coaches and student-athletes, administrators should reach out to coaching staff and determine what, if any, virtual activities coaches are contemplating. Administration should then review and approve these proposed activities. If the school district has shifted to virtual learning, it may be beneficial to incorporate any virtual contact between coaches and student-athletes within this new system. This will make it easier for school districts to monitor these activities and streamline the process for students. While this is a difficult time for all students and connection with their coaches may be beneficial to their well-being, school districts must still ensure that these virtual contacts are appropriate and adhere to the district’s policies, as well as the new WIAA rules.
For questions regarding this article, please contact the author,
or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, S.C., attorney.