Athletics allowed during remote learning at Ashwaubenon High School
By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – With remote instruction entering its third month in the district, the school board voted 4-0 Monday, Nov. 30, to allow in-person, co-curricular competition at the high school for academic clubs and athletics.
Board President Jay Van Laanen was absent when the other four voting members supported competition beginning in December when no spectators will be allowed at events with remote learning scheduled to continue at Ashwaubenon until Jan. 11.
Ashwaubenon High School, a member of the Fox River Classic Conference, moved its fall athletics this school year to an alternate season in early spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We made the very unpopular decision to postpone co-curriculars until the spring,” said Superintendent Kurt Weyers. “As I said, this was not a very popular decision, but a decision we thought would be best at the time in order to get us on the best avenue academically. So, our track record has shown that we have placed academics higher than co-curriculars.”
However, with nowhere to move winter sports, the board previously backed a recommendation from Nick Senger, high school activities director, to allow winter athletics to begin practicing the week of Nov. 16.
Except for public schools in Green Bay, Manitowoc and Sheboygan, Senger said schools in the conference are competing in winter athletics, even with remote learning taking place.
“As a matter of fact, already a number of the schools already started with competitions,” he said. “Last week, there was a girls’ basketball game in Pulaski, a girls’ basketball game Notre Dame played and a couple hockey games that Bay Port High School and De Pere High School have already competed in.”
Senger said about 140 student-athletes are involved in winter athletics at Ashwaubenon, where they had an average grade-point average of 3.5 in the first quarter this fall.
“They value school, and they know that (for) many of them, virtual learning is not easy,” he said.
Senger said safety procedures have been put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing masks during competition, limiting events to essential personnel and live streaming the events.
“I’m not naïve,” he said. “There could be some hiccups. There could be some issues that pop up, but I think those are great learning experiences as well.”
Based on data from teams competing this fall, Senger said the indication was there was very little possibility of COVID-19 spreading in a competition.
“I didn’t hear from any of my fellow ADs or colleagues that they had to shut down a group of students because of a spread in competition,” he said. “A lot of student-athletes that have contracted it has been outside of the sport, where maybe they came to the sport and they had to be quarantined. It hasn’t been in-sport transmission. I think that goes to masking and sanitizing and screening, and telling kids to stay home when they’re sick.”
Board members heard from the boys’ hockey and boys’ and girls’ basketball varsity head coaches, who spoke in favor of allowing their teams to compete this winter.
Matt Golden, boys’ hockey head coach, said varsity and junior varsity players will be traveling in separate buses this season, while masks are being worn at the rink and on buses.
“Also in practices, we’ve been practicing in pods, so we try and keep five kids in a group together, and they do every drill with those kids,” he said. “So if something were to happen, we could… hopefully narrow it down and not spread it across.”
With the protocols in place to prevent the virus from spreading, Mark Tomashek, boys’ basketball head coach, said the players “are safer here than they are going to the grocery store or heading out to the Lambeau Field district, where there’s like 150 kids on that football field.”
“The precautions that we put in place, and that Nick (Senger) has put in place, I think are just phenomenal,” he said. “There’s really no place to put this winter season. It’s either you have it or you’re not going to have it. The fall sports you can push back. There’s no more pushing back right now.”
Tomashek said it would be more difficult holding winter sports if they were delayed until Jan. 11.
Nicky VanLaanen, girls’ basketball head coach and an AHS social studies teacher, said she has struggled with allowing co-curricular competition while students continue to learn remotely.
“I have several of my players in my virtual classes, and then I go to the gym and I coach them face-to-face,” she said. “I’ve struggled with that a little bit, but I can come back to this, because for 25 years I’ve been a teacher first and a coach second.”
VanLaanen said what convinced her to support allowing co-curricular competition was when Senger told her it would include both academic clubs and athletics.
“The other difference, too, is it’s voluntary for these kids, and it’s voluntary for the parents, (while) school is mandatory,” she said. “When I teach my kids virtually during the day, and I see some of them at practice one-on-one at night, I know it’s a voluntary versus a mandatory situation.”
Senger said seating for the players will be staggered to keep them 6 feet apart with three rows of seats, while sanitizing of the bench areas will take place in the 25 minutes between games.
He said wrestling will be the sport affected the most with the current WIAA protocols limiting matches to one dual meet every seven days.
“Heading into any tournament, a wrestler will only have seven, eight or nine matches, as opposed to that 50-match (amount in a season) that they’re used to,” Senger said.
If sports aren’t offered this winter at Ashwaubenon, he said students could go elsewhere to participate in them, such as AAU basketball.
Senger said no coaches have come forward to him saying they’re not willing to coach at Ashwaubenon this winter with the protocols in place.
“I believe (the coaches are) there for the right reasons…,” he said. “We’re surveillance testing. A lot of our kids have opted into that. A lot of our coaches have opted into that. That’s a comfort for some of the programs. One of our coaches right before the season did resign, our swim coach, but we were able to have another individual that was with good head coaching experience, he was already on the staff, so he was able to fill that void in a hurry.”
Board members agreed the voluntary nature of co-curricular activities and the number of participants made them different than students attending school in-person.
“(Because) everything is voluntary, I would allow the parents, students and coaches to make their own choices as to what risk that they want to take,” said Board Treasurer Michelle Garrigan.
Board member Paul Trondson said it is important for students to be back in school and have after-school activities.
“I appreciate Nick’s plan that he put together, so I think we do have an appropriate mitigation plan in place,” he said. “Nick’s plan… is the best of the best. Many coaches have praised it.”
Following the board’s vote, Weyers announced co-curricular activities are scheduled to begin at Parkview Middle School when students return for in-person instruction Jan. 11, while those activities would begin at the elementary school level when the second semester starts Jan. 25.