After more than an hour of discussion about reinstating high school sports during a temporary distance learning period, Brainerd School Board members did not take action on the measure, continuing the hiatus for athletics and activities.
In-person sports and other extracurricular activities were put on pause when a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases drove ninth through 12th grade students at Brainerd High School, Lincoln Education Center and the Brainerd Learning Center into distance learning for two weeks. That cluster, officials revealed during the school board meeting Monday, Sept. 28, includes 21 cases right now, with numbers continuing to increase. Administrators said the cluster resulted from an informal, non-school-sponsored gathering and not from school facilities. The district as a whole had 30 cases as of Monday night.
Classes were canceled Wednesday, Sept. 23, after district officials announced the cluster the afternoon before. Sports continued the evening of the announcement, a decision for which Superintendent Laine Larson said she received flak from other school districts.
The students’ hybrid learning model, along with sports and activities, are scheduled to restart Oct. 8. But with multiple sport seasons already shortened and otherwise altered due to the pandemic, Activities Director Charlie Campbell discussed with school board members Monday the possibility of finding a happy medium by at least allowing students to continue practicing during the two-week suspension. Even if they can’t compete during this time, Campbell said they could at least prepare for later competitions.
BHS’s first football game is scheduled for Oct. 9. If the team can’t practice until after the two-week “reset” period, Campbell said that game will have to be canceled.
The announcement to suspend sports came the day after the Minnesota State High School League decided to reinstate football and volleyball. Within 24 hours, Campbell said he went from drafting a 22-school football schedule to having to shut down for two weeks.
“That swing of emotion last week was really intense and really challenging because that’s not news you want to hear,” he said.
Campbell said he would love to recommend continuing on with sports as normal, but it’s not that easy, especially with the recommendation from the Minnesota Department of Health to suspend activities. However, Campbell believes the district’s sports programs are running safely and can continue to do so, and he said it would be ideal to have regional or state health officials study the school’s sports programs specifically and recommend continuation.
Campbell said athletes work within pods and do not intermix with other pods. They follow every health official directive, he said, and to his knowledge there are no COVID-19 cases connected with sports. Buses to competitions are running at half capacity, locker room use is limited and masks are worn when appropriate.
“Sports and athletics and activities are not the most important thing a school district does, but it tends to be the thing that our community cares about the most,” Campbell said, noting he understands the difficult position administrators are in.
But coaches, athletes and parents all want sports to continue, he added.
Kristi Duff, a mother of two soccer players and board member of the Lakes Area Youth Soccer Association, expressed the same sentiment during the public forum portion of Monday’s meeting. After the soccer association canceled its spring season — her senior’s last — she said her family was looking forward to the school’s fall season.
“We understand moving to complete distance learning to reset the safety of the school, but canceling all outdoor sports is unreasonable,” Duff said. “These kids have proven that they can play safe outside, and we’re asking that you let them continue to safely practice and play games starting today, not in two weeks.”
Larson said moving high school students into distance learning within the first three weeks of school was one of the toughest decisions she has ever had to make as a superintendent.
“The decision was made with a whole lot of heart and thought. It wasn’t made easily, and it was certainly no fun,” she said. “And to make the decision on athletics was even worse because there weren’t any direct cases in those after school activities at the time.”
Larson reminded the board of the state’s Safe Learning Plan, which states extracurricular activities should be discontinued if a school moves into the distance learning model because of COVID-19 cases. That point brought up liability concerns. After speaking with legal counsel, Larson said if a case did arise from playing sports after the board reinstated them before the two weeks were up, the district could be sued for negligence and breaching duty of care, especially since the health department recommended the suspension.
Director of Business Services Marci Lord said there is no pandemic insurance coverage out there, so the district would be responsible for any potential legal fees.
School Board Chair Tom Haglin argued the district did not have to switch to distance learning but did so under an abundance of caution. According to the Crow Wing County 14-day case rate per 10,000 — a measurement the Safe Learning Plan recommends districts use to decide learning models — Brainerd does not yet fall into the total distance learning category.
Human Resources Director Angie Bennet said the case rate is not what influenced the distance learning in this instance but due to not being able to quickly complete contact tracing for all students who tested positive. The Safe Learning Plan states schools can use a short-term distance learning model if contact tracing and notification of close contacts cannot be completed within 24-36 hours.
Crow Wing County Public Health Supervisor Michelle Moritz said roughly 56 COVID-19 cases in county residents outside the school district have been traced back to the high school cluster so far. Last Thursday, Sept. 24, Moritz said the county’s 14-day case rate per 10,000 was 11.12. She expects that rate to increase past 15 this Thursday and potentially rise to about 26 the following week. The Safe Learning plan recommends hybrid learning for all students if the rate is 20-29; hybrid for elementary and distance learning for secondary students at 30-49; and distance learning for all students at a rate of 50 or more. Crow Wing County had 554 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, Sept. 29.
Board member Sue Kern asked Moritz how the virus spreads outdoors versus indoors and about the “close contact” parameters.
There are benefits to fresh air and increased air flow outdoors, Moritz said, but it depends on time and proximity. She said close contact means being within less than 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes.
Moritz also said there has been a big jump in COVID-19 cases in the 0-18 age range, primarily in those 14 and older.
BHS Principal Andrea Rusk said she has not heard from families regarding sports and activities but has been in contact with those who have sick children.
Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn said she, too, has been in communication with families impacted by COVID-19. In some cases, children tested positive but do not have symptoms. In other cases, she said students have several symptoms and have passed the virus on to the entire household.
The impacts of the two-week shutdown will be different for each sport, Campbell said. While the football team would likely lose its first game, cross-country runners would probably lose three of their six meets. The tennis section tournament would happen right when the suspension ends, and swimmers would lose a few meets but still likely have some time to prepare for sections, which happens later than other sports.
Brainerd’s suspending sports means disruption for other schools as well, Campbell said, with Brainerd not being able to fulfill its commitments.
Pros and cons
If the district is forced to further alter or cancel sports seasons, Campbell said some athletes will likely be pushed toward amateur associations and other programs, which may have fewer safeguards in place than the school district.
“I believe that if we're going to offer these programs, it’s better that we do it from a holistic approach rather than leaving it to an organization that maybe isn’t bound by some of these same high standards that we are.”
Haglin agreed with that sentiment, expressing his confidence in distance leadership doing everything possible to keep students safe.
Kern advocated for reinstating sports as well. First, she said it can’t be said for sure whether the students who tested positive got it from each other or from some other activity like going to Walmart or riding in a vehicle with someone else. She also said she doesn’t feel the district should keep everyone home just because some are sick.
“I don’t think those kids running around outside are going to get it from each other,” Kern said. “They’re not cuddling. They’re running around with a ball.”
The other four board members — Charles Black Lance, Ruth Nelson, Bob Nystrom and Reed Campbell — took the opposite stance.
Black Lance said the reset would be all for naught if sports were allowed to come back, but Haglin said that’s only the case if kids are, in fact, distancing themselves from one another during the reset.
Black Lance also noted all the unknowns surrounding the novel virus and argued about the need of consistency for students, despite differing opinions on what “consistency” might mean.
“I really feel at this point in time in our community, that we must not splinter as a community. We are all Warriors — every single one of us. And it’s important that we make our concerns heard, that we have that dialogue. But after that we have to fall in line with the leaders we have in place,” Black Lance said, thanking everyone present for contributing to the dialogue and noting the importance of supporting decisions of district leadership.
Nelson agreed with the consistency piece, and both she and Nystrom worried about liability and legal repercussions with a lack of insurance.
“I ache for all those seniors out there. I really do. I’m sorry about that,” Nelson said.
As much as he would like to see students back in the classroom and playing sports, Reed Campbell said the district needs to remain consistent with guidelines.
Hypothetically, if sports were reinstated, Larson asked what would happen if school districts refused to play Brainerd for ignoring recommendations.
“Well then I guess we don’t play,” Kern said, also suggesting a waiver for those students who want to play. If they sign a waiver, then the district wouldn’t be liable, she said.
Haglin said it would likely take too long to draft a property waiver to get athletes playing before the two-week reset is up.
Black Lance said he respectfully disagreed with Kern. If a waiver is needed, then the district shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, he said.
The board did not take any action after the discussion Monday night, meaning in-person sports and other activities will continue to be suspended.