Gov. Brad Little announced Wednesday he is instructing the State Board of Education to allow more spectators at high school sports events.
Little said he based the decision on decreases in statewide COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“All of our decisions related to the Idaho Rebounds plan have been rooted in detailed metrics related to virus activity and impacts on our health care system,” Little said in a written statement. “Thanks to the good actions of the people of Idaho to slow the spread of the virus in our communities, we are seeing a continued decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.”
While he called on the State Board to revise its high school athletics plan, Little gave no details about how that would impact current spectator limits. The current State Board athletics plan allows each athlete to invite two spectators, with some limits and masking requirements.
Debbie Critchfield, president of the State Board of Education, said education groups will meet Thursday to discuss specifics of the new athletics plan, and she hopes to have new rules in place within 48 hours.
Critchfield said the group will likely consider gym capacity and how they might allow more students to attend games. The current plan was largely crafted to allow student athletes to invite parents or family members.
“I’m excited to see that we’ll be able to add more (spectators) into the gyms, recognizing that school districts, school boards…everyone involved in the process has been able to manage their crowds and manage those things they were asked to do,” Critchfield said.
The current athletic plan includes sanctions for districts that violate attendance rules. Critchfield knows of at least one warning letter sent to a school for violating those rules, but said the majority of districts have been abiding by the necessary rules to allow two spectators per athlete.
High school sports and attendance at games and matches has been a contentious issue for schools, student athletes and their families during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Little issued a statewide public health order in November that limited crowds to 10 people or fewer.
- The State Board of Education voted to reenforce that order and clarify that it applied to sporting events and extracurricular activities on Dec. 10.
- That meant high school teams were playing in essentially empty gyms for the first part of the winter seasons.
- On Jan. 4, Little opened sports up to more spectators by allowing athletes and cheerleaders to each invite two spectators to home and away games.
- That allowed small crowds to return to high school gyms.
The issue has taken root inside the Statehouse, even before Wednesday’s announcement from Little.
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, and Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, are sponsoring House Concurrent Resolution 2. If adopted, HCR 2 would lift crowd limits on public gatherings, including school sports.
That resolution could go to the House floor for a vote Thursday morning.
“I am optimistic that our Department of Health and Welfare, in conjunction with our governor, is understanding the necessity to provide relief for our kids,” Ehardt said in a statement Wednesday night. “Our kids are suffering.”
Even Little’s own position on crowd sizes as high school sports appears to be evolving.
During an AARP-Idaho sponsored telephone town hall meeting Tuesday, Little expressed concern with indoor sports.
“Indoor high school sports are the perfect petri dish for spread,” Little said during Tuesday’s call.
He told callers his goal was to open sports up for more spectators as case numbers improved later in the school year.
He never hinted those changes could be set in motion just 24 hours after he wrapped up that town hall.
Ehardt and Crane did not immediately respond to request for comment. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Idaho Education News reporters Sami Edge and Kevin Richert contributed to this article.