RIVER FALLS — School Board approved the superintendent’s recommendations to move ahead with winter sports and ease distancing for music students, along with updated coronavirus mitigation measures amid the ongoing pandemic.

The board voted on three motions Monday night, Nov. 9. The rules for winter sports passed by a 5-2 vote, while two separate motions for band and choir passed unanimously.

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Here is what the district's updated Wildcat Roadmap plan calls for:

Winter sports

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  • Winter sports will proceed as scheduled by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.
  • Players and parents will be required to sign a “compact” pledging to comply with coronavirus mitigation policies at practices and games.
  • Athletes will be required to report to their coaches if they develop symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Every team will have a “COVID coach” designated from existing staff to collect signatures for the compacts and ensure face coverings are being worn.
  • Players will be screened with a symptom questionnaire and temperature check before practices and games.
  • Seating charts for team buses will be established to assist potential contact tracing.

Band and choir

  • Though most sections can comply with the health department-recommended distance of 13 feet between students, distancing can be eased to a close as nine feet. If a section still doesn't fit in the space, students will be split into groups of four to six, and the groups will then be kept at least nine feet apart.
  • Student musicians will be required to wear specialty masks. Brass and woodwind instruments also require the use of bell covers to help limit aerosol transmission.
  • The circulation system will cycle new air in the practice space every 20 minutes.

Board members discussed the recommendations for more than an hour and half, weighing the importance of athletics and music education against safety concerns.

Board member Todd Schultz said the benefits for students outweigh the risks, while board member Bob Casey stressed parents’ obligation to reinforce safety expectations.

“You’re only as good as your weakest link,” Casey said. “If the parents aren’t abiding by social distancing, masks, restricting visiting and that type of thing, it’s just not going to work.”

Board members Mike Thompson and Cindy Holbrook cast the dissenting votes on the motion pertaining to winter sports.

“It’s not because I think sports aren’t important,” Thompson said of his decision. Though mitigation measures will likely reduce risk, they will not entirely prevent the district from contributing to the worsening pandemic, he said.

School Board president Stacy Johnson Myers addressed student athletes directly, some of whom attended the meeting in person in the high school auditorium.

“Your responsibility as athletes has always been to take care of yourselves and your teammates,” she said. “But now, more than ever, that responsibility extends to the community.”

The health department has recommended cancelling close-contact sports in the interest of keeping schools open, Pierce County Health Officer AZ Snyder said.

Tough decisions

The superintendent highlighted the myriad benefits of athletics and music — including lessons on commitment, teamwork and goal setting — but said arriving at his recommendations involved some of the most challenging decisions of his career.

“Safety for our staff, our students and our community is at play with this decision,” Superintendent Jamie Benson said in a presentation to the board. “So too are the aspects of social, emotional, physical and academic interests of students.”

The issue of distancing for band and choir has come before the board the past couple of weeks after a group of teachers requested eased distancing requirements and warned of growing dissatisfaction among students. Though some board members voiced support for the idea, Benson asked at the Nov. 2 meeting for another week to explore options.

The 13-foot rule means there isn’t enough classroom space for several sections of sixth and eighth graders to practice together. Teachers also said distancing means students can be more easily heard above the group, causing some to feel insecure about performing.

Making accommodations for band and choir students was framed in School Board discussions as a matter of fairness with student athletes, who have been allowed to practice and compete under added safety measures this fall.

There were fewer than 15 students and fewer than five staff members in the infectious period of COVID-19 as of Monday, according to a presentation to the board.

In Pierce County, the ongoing total of COVID-19 cases reached 1,184 with eight deaths as of Nov. 9, the county health department reported. Contact tracers were not able to contact newly identified close contacts within 24 hours, prompting a call for those infected with the respiratory disease to help with notifying people they may have exposed.

The Nov. 9 meeting, streamed on YouTube, experienced technical difficulties during the discussion. Details of the approved motions would be added to the Wildcat Roadmap document on the district’s website, the board president said the next day.

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