Education leaders want the governor to allow more parents into sports events

Jennifer Orme with one of her sons at a South Fremont High School football game. Courtesy of Jennifer Orme.

Update, Dec. 18, 2020: Click here to read a full copy of the draft proposal submitted to the Governor’s Office. 

Education groups are planning to ask Gov. Brad Little on Friday to change a 10-person spectator limit for student athletic events.

Debbie Critchfield, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, said Little agreed to consider amendments to a statewide order limiting gatherings of more than 10 people, but offered no guarantees that he’ll make an exception.

The Idaho School Boards Association, Critchfield, the Idaho High School Activities Association and school administrators have been working on the proposal, which would ask the governor to permit two spectators per participant (with some restrictions) and allow cheerleaders to perform at games.

The spectator limit drew ire from parents who wrote over 100 of pages of emails to the State Board before and after a meeting last week where the board reinforced Little’s 10-spectator limit.

“Please let the people that we voted into our local school boards make decisions that best fit and reflect our opinions,” reads one of the more polite letters, with the subject line “Over reach.” “This is Idaho not California.”

The 10-person statewide gathering limit took effect on Nov. 14, when Little moved Idaho to stage two of his four-stage pandemic operations plan following a spike in COVID-19 cases. While the 10-person gathering limit doesn’t apply to those participating in sports, it does restrict the number of parents and spectators who can watch those events in person.

The governor’s order has the force of law. Still, at least a handful of school districts chose to ignore or circumvent it.

Last week the State Board of Education tried to crack-down on malfeasance — and give districts some cushion from parent pressure — by directing districts to follow the governor’s order.  It warned that districts that violated a state health order could lose limited immunity against COVID-related lawsuits.

The order appears to have prompted some changes:

But other districts continued to break the rules.

Screenshot from a Dietrich Basketball game on Dec. 12, 2020.

A screenshot from a live basketball game in the Dietrich School District on Saturday shows well over 10 people sitting in the bleachers at a basketball game.

As recently as Tuesday, Madison High School allowed around 40 people in its gym for a basketball game. Groups appear to be sitting spaced apart in the stands, but attendance is beyond the spectator limit ordered by the governor and State Board.

Neither Dietrich Superintendent Stefanie Shaw, nor Madison School District Superintendent Geoff Thomas responded to calls seeking comment on this story.

The Idaho School Boards Association advises its members that there are legal risks for districts that choose to ignore the statewide orders. Last week the Idaho House Republican Caucus refuted that. In a statement, the caucus wrote that a district would have to “knowingly engage in behavior that has a high likelihood of causing harm” to lose protection under recent legislation that protects schools from some COVID-19 lawsuits.

Ultimately, a judge would decide whether a district has met that standard, ISBA executive director Karen Echeverria said.

Apart from possible legal action, there really are no ramifications for a district that chooses not to abide by the statewide directives.

“We’re not law enforcement,” Critchfield said last week. She framed the State Board resolution as a call-to-action for education agencies to support one another and abide by state restrictions.

Screenshot from a Dec. 15 Basketball game at Madison High School

And Ty Jones, executive director of the Idaho High School Activities Association which oversees district athletics, said his association is not enforcing the governor’s stage two orders.

“It’s not a plan that we came up with,” Jones said. “Our board has been pretty specific that if it’s not something that we came up with, it’s not something that — as of now — we’re interested in enforcing.”

A lack of continuity frustrates districts, parents and teachers, Echeverria said. Part of the reason ISBA is helping with the proposal is to try and make sure districts are playing by the same rules.

Jennifer Orme and her family. Courtesy of Jennifer Orme

For parents, the push is simple: They want to support their kids.

Jennifer Orme, a mother of six in St. Anthony, has four children who play sports. Over the years, they’ve broken femurs, arms, and sprained ankles at games and practices. She’s sat with them in the ambulance and driven them to the hospital herself.

Orme worries what happens if one of her kids gets hurt, especially during an away game. And she wants to support her children from the stands if they make a mistake and need an encouraging smile from mom.

She thinks gyms are large enough to allow for safe distancing between groups of parents. And she thinks the students, and the community, could benefit from a chance to celebrate something together.

“Everybody is getting at each other’s throats because we’re being so segregated and separated that we’re forgetting that love and support that we’ve always been able to have with each other,” she said. “If there’s something that we can safely do together to bring some spirits up…it’s definitely worth it.”

Sami Edge

Sami Edge

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