School board discusses COVID restrictions at winter sports

Uinta County School District No. 1 District Activities Director Bubba O’Neill addresses school board trustees about COVID-19 requirements and restrictions at winter activities. (YouTube screengrab/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — Following the swearing-in of new trustees Dan Wheeler and Joel Wiedrich, as well as returning trustees David Petersen and Jami Brackin, the bulk of the regular December meeting of the Uinta County School District No. 1 board was spent discussing COVID-19 requirements and protocols for winter sports and activities as required by the Wyoming High School Activities Association (WHSAA).

District Activities Director Bubba O’Neill addressed the board and explained the restrictions that are in place at the present time. O’Neill said the good news is that all activities and sports are moving forward, meaning students are able to compete.

“Right now, everyone gets to play,” said O’Neill, referencing winter sports that include boys’ and girls’ basketball, wrestling, boys’ swimming and indoor track. However, there are restrictions on the number of spectators and the number of participants at indoor track meets, as well as safety protocols that will need to be followed.

O’Neill said there will be limits to the number of spectators at all activities, which will be 25% of venue capacity up to a maximum of 100 people. All spectators will need to wear face masks and people can only sit with members of their immediate household. Everyone will also need to scan the QR code at the door and complete the district’s health survey. All coaches and participants will also be required to wear masks except when actively competing or performing. Masks must be worn at all times and cannot be pulled down for eating or drinking, said O’Neill, who explained that rules prohibiting eating and drinking mean that concessions will not be sold at games.

In addition, in situations where there are multiple games played back to back, such as with JV and varsity sports, people will be asked to leave after the game they’re watching so that other folks can come in.

O’Neill said when the new health orders were issued limiting the number of spectators at events, the district initially decided not to allow any spectators at all while they were in the process of figuring out the best way to move forward. Now, however, they have worked out a system through which participating students will be able to have parents fill out a form beforehand to confirm their plans to attend an event. Each student will be able to have a set number of spectators — sometimes parents only — and spectators are asked to remember that at sporting events it’s not just the athletes on a team who have parents who want to attend, but cheerleaders, the dance teams and band members as well. In addition, 30% of the seating must be allocated to the visiting team.

O’Neill said he understands the disappointment of extended family who may not be able to attend events and of the participants who thrive on having spectators; however, he said the measures are necessary in light of the current COVID-19 situation and the health orders.

“Last spring and summer, many of us thought we wouldn’t be in school or be able to compete at all,” he said, “and many of us said we would do anything to give our kids the ability to participate. Well, how quickly we forget.”

O’Neill said the WHSAA has made clear that schools will receive one warning for rule violations and then will have their ability to participate suspended. Therefore, the district is taking the rules very seriously and asking spectators and participants to do the same.

Assistant Superintendent Doug Rigby said the district’s policy will be similar to WHSAA. Anyone not following rules will be asked one time to comply, and a repeat offense will result in a person forfeiting the ability to attend. Rigby said, if necessary, those repeat offenders will be escorted from the premises by law enforcement and cited for trespassing.

Board chair Jami Brackin said, “We want our kids to have these opportunities,” and said nobody wants to bar people from events but they will do so if needed to ensure the kids are allowed to participate.

To help ensure people are still able to watch games and activities, O’Neill said games will be livestreamed on the National Federation of High Schools network. People can register for an account with NFHS at nfhsnetwork.com. In addition, Evanston’s radio station is streaming events as well, including drama and other activities, which can be viewed at mylocalradio.com.

O’Neill and trustees urged people to follow the rules at activities. O’Neill said he was one who didn’t believe COVID-19 was too serious until he himself got sick. “Believe me, you don’t want it,” he said. His statements were backed up by trustee Jenny Welling, who said that she too became ill and battled COVID-19 for several days.

Welling also urged people to follow the rules for the sake of the students who won’t get to play otherwise. “Mask wearing is a small thing for our kids to be able to participate in activities at all,” she said. “It’s not political. Just suck it up and do it.”

Trustees also made clear the rules apply to any groups that may be utilizing district facilities as well, including those participating in rec leagues, community groups renting facilities, etc.

Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit was present and spoke with trustees, thanking them and O’Neill for ensuring the rules are followed. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” she said. “I know it sucks to have to enforce these and I thank you for doing it. It takes guts and courage and leadership.”

Brackin and Petersen both acknowledged the passing of district staff member Pep Brinkerhoff, who had passed away just days prior to the meeting from COVID-19. Both became emotional while speaking. Petersen said it was a huge loss for the entire community, while Brackin said, “It’s devastating to lose one of our own and it makes this very real,” before issuing a plea for the community to follow precautions.

In other business, Horizon High School Principal Shad Hamilton, who is also overseeing the district’s virtual learning program for those who have opted not to return to in-person schooling, gave trustees an update on the virtual program. Hamilton said when school first began in August there were about 135 students in grades K-12 utilizing the virtual option.

Many of those students had returned to the regular classroom and numbers in the virtual program had gone down to about 63, although Hamilton said enrollment had started to tick back up with the recent COVID-19 surge. Hamilton explained that families who want to go virtual must fill out an application and have it approved by the building principal before participating and that students cannot go back and forth repeatedly from virtual to in-person and back again.

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