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Behind the decision to ban spectators from local high school sports and the ensuing backlash

click to enlarge A mostly maskless crowd watches as the Fortuna Huskies boys basketball team hosted the Eureka Loggers on Jan. 6, the last day spectators were allowed in attendance until Jan. 23.

Jose Quezada

A mostly maskless crowd watches as the Fortuna Huskies boys basketball team hosted the Eureka Loggers on Jan. 6, the last day spectators were allowed in attendance until Jan. 23.

Well before Public Health announced the highly contagious Omicron COVID-19 variant had been confirmed to be circulating locally and reported a record 400 new cases of the virus on Jan. 3, local school administrators felt the surge coming. For days, many had been hearing of positive tests among teachers and staff, with McKinleyville Middle School facing so many employees out sick with COVID-19 that it warned families Dec. 31 a "critical staffing shortage" meant students would come back from winter break to find "modifications to services." Many districts had made rapid home tests available to families in the days leading up to the Jan. 3 return to in-person instruction and had already received reports of positive tests.

So administrative tensions were already rather high when Public Health released its bombshell Jan. 3 report. Almost immediately, Jack Lakin, the commissioner of the Humboldt-Del Norte League (HDNL), which includes 11 local high schools, started getting calls and emails from concerned administrators. Their concern would only grow the following day, as Public Health confirmed a single-day record 188 new cases as schools' own testing protocols returned scores of cases on campuses. The administrators first requested that HDNL's upcoming athletic director meetings be held via Zoom rather than in-person, then started discussing the possibility of pausing extracurricular activities on campus, with some broaching the possibility of canceling upcoming basketball games and wrestling matches.

"They wanted to take steps to try to prevent any kind of school closures or disruptions," Lakin said, noting the Omicron-fueled surge has caused districts in other parts of the country to shift back to remote learning, many due to staffing shortages.

With local case numbers surging and high numbers of teachers and students testing positive for the virus returning from winter break, Lakin said he and administrators started to ask themselves if it made sense for schools to hold "high-attendance events that mix two different school communities." On Jan. 5, desperately wanting to keep kids on the basketball court and wrestling mat after seasons canceled entirely in 2020 and abbreviated in 2021, Lakin said he made the recommendation that the league vote to temporarily ban spectators from sport events, at least until Jan. 23. Generally, league decisions are made by schools' athletic directors but he felt this decision had to be made "at the top," and so asked district superintendents to weigh in.

By the end of the day, the vote was in, with the league voting 6-4 for the spectator ban.

"So much in the last year or two, we've been reactive," Lakin explained. "This was an attempt by them to be proactive and take some steps upfront in order to minimize what was going to happen next. And we realize high school athletics is very communal and family oriented, and this is not something that anyone does lightly."

The decision was announced Jan. 6. Backlash quickly followed.

"Ridiculous," Brian Taylor wrote on Facebook, responding to a post by First District Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn announcing HDNL's decision. "Let's quit letting this flu overcome our lives and ruin memories that can't be remade. If you are scared of being infected, stay home. Don't take everyone's right to watch their kids away from them. How about we go back to letting the people decide what they want to do and not a handful of people deciding what we can do ... Absolute bullshit!!!"

Within days, an online petition started calling on HDNL to reverse course. By the time the Journal went to press Jan. 11, it had almost 2,000 signatures.

"I'm signing because kids need to see and hear their parents and family rooting for them," Wayne McKnight commented. "When I was in sports, it was great knowing my family was there."

"It's not a game without fans," Meredith Vance weighed in. "Don't take more things away from our kids."

Some of the comments underscored the extent to which the pandemic has been politicized — "Let's go Brandon," wrote Jesse Ricks, spouting the euphemism for "Fuck Joe Biden" that has become popular in some right-wing circles — and others touched on an apparent disconnect in HDNL banning spectators while bars remain open and professional sports teams continue playing in packed arenas.

"I'm signing because this policy is nonsensical and arbitrary," wrote Shelby Messenger. "I can drive my daughter to her game, drop her off (because I can't watch the game) then go sit in a crowded movie theater while she plays. THIS MAKES NO SENSE and I am ready to start taking legal action against policies such as this."

The difference, of course, is that movie theaters, bars and even professional sports teams aren't operating under the primary mission of keeping kids in classrooms. Northern Humboldt Union High School District Superintendent Roger Macdonald said it's important to remember that's the ultimate goal guiding district's decisions, adding that his district has also taken other actions — limiting staff travel, moving dances and other large activities later into the year, holding its orientation nights virtually and canceling campus visits for eighth graders — all with the aim of keeping kids in classrooms.

"There's a lot of things that we're doing to restrict spread," he said. "I understand why parents would be upset. I'm a parent, my kids play sports and I get it. But we're trying to be proactive in keeping our schools open for face-to-face instruction."

But as evidenced by the split vote, not all superintendents agreed with the spectator ban.

"I voted against it for a variety of reasons," said Del Norte Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Harris. "First of all, one of the promises we've made to our community is we would follow the laws, we would follow the guidance from public and state health to the fullest extent possible. We have not received any guidance from public or state health advising us not to have spectators at sporting events. That was problem No. 1."

Harris said high school athletes are also some of the "most monitored" students in local schools, getting tested at least weekly, while pointing out that while COVID-19 might be surging around the North Coast and the country, it's not in his schools, saying that at the time of HDNL's vote he had 10 students out of about 4,500 districtwide out with the virus.

"To me, that's not a major outbreak," he said. "Our perspective right now is for our students. We don't see the overwhelming need to remove spectators wholesale from the athletic environment."

While Harris is correct in stating public health officials have not recommended youth athletics ban spectators, they have repeatedly warned of the dangers of large gatherings that bring multiple households from different communities together, particularly in indoor spaces, noting they can become super-spreader events in which one person with COVID-19 can infect many others, greatly accelerating spread of the virus. And while some continue to minimize the virus as some kind of "flu," it has repeatedly come to overwhelm hospital systems throughout the country — including Humboldt's for stretches — with critically ill patients.

click to enlarge Masking compliance has reportedly been spotty at best in the stands at local high school sport events this year, despite a countywide masking mandate. - JOSE QUEZADA
  • Jose Quezada
  • Masking compliance has reportedly been spotty at best in the stands at local high school sport events this year, despite a countywide masking mandate.

The Omicron variant has also been shown to be just as infectious and transmissible among fully vaccinated people as it is among the unvaccinated, greatly increasing its potential to spread rapidly. And while data indicates it is less likely to cause severe illness — particularly among the fully vaccinated — the sheer volume of cases poses a real threat to healthcare capacity. In Humboldt County, almost 11 percent of cumulative cases throughout the 22-month pandemic had been confirmed in the 12 days before the Journal went to press. And because COVID-19 hospitalizations generally trail 10 days to two weeks behind infections, the impact of the local surge on hospital capacity has yet to be seen.

Even with the emergence of Omicron locally, some superintendents said they felt it was safe to continue to allow spectators at youth sporting events, so long as they are masked and physically distanced. But photos from high school basketball games in recent weeks indicate mask compliance among spectators has been spotty, at best, and physical distancing often nonexistent. Some worried enforcing such provision would place an added burden on school staff in a politically charged environment.

Ferndale Unified School District Superintendent Beth Anderson said she voted against the spectator ban and hopes that when it is lifted and "fans are allowed again, all spectators will cooperate with the indoor mask mandate and practice social distancing so we can continue to have fans in attendance and keep our students in the classrooms and on the courts/mats."

Lakin and other superintendents contacted for this story said the decision will be re-evaluated prior to Jan. 23, and all hope conditions — both on school campuses and in the greater North Coast community — will allow for a return of spectators at that time.

For his part, Macdonald said he stands by his decision, saying it was based on "what I know about COVID and what I believe about the importance of keeping our schools open," though he understands why parents might be angry, adding that he's already heard from some.

"There are zero hard feelings toward the people screaming at us right now," he said.

And, in sharp contrast to community conversations about the decision (and just about everything else related to the pandemic these days), the superintendents who voted on Jan. 5 don't seem to harbor any hard feelings toward colleagues who landed on the other side of the vote.

"I cannot fault my colleagues for doing what they think is best for their students, their staff, their communities given the current surge numbers," Harris said. "Everyone needs to do what they feel like they have to do. It's just, for Del Norte, I don't feel like it makes sense right now."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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