ELLSWORTH — The topic of fall sports created a lengthy debate for Ellsworth School Board members during their Aug. 24 meeting. Up for discussion was whether to push fall sports to the alternative spring season — which will run mid-February to mid-May.

For the low-risk sports of girls’ golf and tennis as well as cross-country, the board was in agreement to continue the season as-is. Those three sports began practice Aug. 17 and the tennis and golf teams have already competed in events.

The high risk sports — football and volleyball — were another matter as the board was divided on which approach to take.

“What I struggle with is that we have students in masks for seven hours a day at school, then require them to wear masks to the event but then allow them to go mask-free during contact sports. It doesn’t add up to me,” Board President Doug Peterson said. “I personally just think that we open ourselves up to a quicker shutdown.”

“While I support fall sports, are we overestimating the COVID impact, or the social and emotional impact? There’s no denying it, the virus will spread,” Steve Mark added.

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The main points of contention revolved around students participating in football with an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Peterson and board member Dana Glor questioned if the risk was worth it if it meant an increased chance of in-school learning being shut down.

Conversely, board members in favor of starting fall sports on time wondered whether they’d have local competition available if the season were shifted since each school district can make its own decision. Many of the area school districts have already approved all fall sports to resume.

After more than 40 minutes of discussion, the board ultimately voted 4-3 to begin football and volleyball as scheduled on Sept. 7. Peterson, Glor and Susan Beck were opposed.

Although football and volleyball will begin in two weeks, there are a number of changes that will make the experience different.

There will be no concessions or admission fees at events, and there will be a sharp decline in spectators. The plan is to allow four people per volleyball player to attend the event, while the opposing team would be allowed two people per player.

Each sport will also have a COVID coach, responsible for monitoring symptoms and ensuring safety guidelines are being upheld. Masks will be required for all spectators, staff and coaches.

If Ellsworth is unable to complete 50% of a sports season in the fall, the state association will allow the Panthers to shift the sport to the alternative spring season.

The remaining unknown is what will happen if the school district is forced into online learning for all students.

Whether that would mean the end of all fall sports is yet to be determined, although Superintendent Barry Cain offered his perspective on the issue.

“I would recommend that we do not cancel sports if we go to online-only education,” he said. “The reason being that we should look at why we are going online-only. It’s possible we have a staff shortage instead of high student or coach infections.

“I’d hate for them to lose out on a season for reasons that don’t directly involve them.”

Return-to-school updates

The board discussed how attendance will be kept for students participating in online learning. Attendance will be determined on a full-day of coursework and measured by students engaging with their assigned material at least once each day per class. If a student will not be able to participate in any learning activities that day, a parent can email the student’s teacher or online learning coordinator.

The district updated its policy on students displaying COVID-related symptoms. The new requirement is for students not tested for coronavirus but have symptoms to remain home for at least 10 days. They must remain symptom-free for at least 24 hours after that 10-day quarantine before returning to school. If student test negative, they are able to return to school after being fever-free for 24 hours.

Members of the same household must also remain home for 14 days after their last exposure to someone in their household showing COVID-related symptoms.