A fast-break dunk sent the Blackfoot High School student section into a frenzy.
For the first time this season, the swarm of teens packed the stands to support their beloved boys basketball team.
“It’s good to see them back,” Blackfoot athletic director Cody Shelley told me from the other side of the gym.
On Jan. 21, the State Board of Education met Gov. Brad Little’s directive to let more spectators into school sports games. Following blowback from parents and lawmakers and improving COVID-19 case numbers, gyms can now fill to either 40 percent capacity or four spectators per student-athlete.
Prior to the change, I’d been watching my two Blackfoot Bronco nephews play ball from my cell phone, via Facebook Live. Out of sympathy, their mother put my wife and I on the short list to watch in person Wednesday night.
We scored some seats … to a high school basketball game.
Over the years, high school hoops have brought us some respite from Idaho’s long winters. Wednesday’s game underscored growing desires for normalcy during a lingering global pandemic — despite COVID-19’s ongoing impacts.
The familiar scent of buttered popcorn filled the concessions area outside the gym, as masked spectators exchanged cash with masked students.
In the gym, families sat mostly in clusters, many in masks.
The limited crowd cut the decibel levels of a normal January game in half. No pep band. Few kids traipsing the darkness under the bleachers.
Quieter games have brought unexpected challenges, Shelley said. “We’ve had more parents than I’ve ever seen get escorted out. The refs hear everything.”
“There’s definitely some pent-up aggression,” an assistant principal interjected.
A muffled dig from a fan during Wednesday’s JV game was the last straw for one ref, who stopped the game briefly to address a gaggle of hometown parents.
“Folks, no more comments, please,” he said, threatening ejections.
Despite limitations and challenges, Shelley is glad more families are back in the gym. Prior to Wednesday’s game, 50 parents were allowed in. The student section sat empty.
“Our kids aren’t really getting sick,” he added.
Research is still emerging, but schools operating in person have seen scant transmission of the coronavirus, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, especially when masks and distancing are in place. Yet some indoor athletics have led to infections, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in papers published Tuesday.
“What about spectators?” I asked Shelley. “Is it too early for them to come back?”
“Nobody has to come,” he said, adding that some community members, including some of his own family, are staying home out of concerns for getting sick.
“People can choose to stay home.”