Oconto Falls reinstates middle school sports

Administration had recommended suspending the season due to COVID-19
Oconto Falls School Board members, from left, Pam Engel, Clint Gardebrecht, Ron Leja, Jan Stranz and Sharon Stodola-Eslien, sit underneath a projection of the meeting agenda during a special meeting Sept. 2. The board is currently meeting in the high school auditorium to allow for greater social distancing than its regular meeting room at the school district office. Warren Bluhm | NEW Media
Warren Bluhm
Oconto County Times Herald News Editor

Student athletes from Washington Middle School in Oconto Falls will compete in sports this fall after all, after the school board reconsidered its decision to suspend fall sports until further notice.

During a special meeting Sept. 2, the board reversed its decision and OK’d fall sports and extracurricular groups to meet on a 6-1 vote.

The board had accepted the recommendation of its middle school staff on Aug. 17 but reconsidered after hearing from coaches and parents who said students could be safe with the proper safety protocols to contain COVID-19.

Four schools that compete with Oconto Falls on the middle school level — Hortonville/Greenville, Freedom, Little Chute and Seymour — are moving ahead with fall sports.

Three others — Clintonville, Shawano and New London — are planning to run fall sports in the spring. Girls volleyball will be played from mid-February through March, while cross-country and football are scheduled from early to mid-May through the beginning of June.

About a half-dozen speakers asked the board to allow the fall sports teams to play in the fall.

Rochelle Otto, head volleyball coach and a volleyball mom, noted that the district is moving ahead with fall high school sports and asked the board to give middle school students the same opportunity.

Under WIAA guidelines, which don’t affect middle schools, if schools are unable to complete at least half of a fall schedule, they may try again in the spring, Otto said.

“I’m asking you to give Washington Middle School students a chance to play this fall, and if it doesn’t happen, we can move to the spring season,” she said. High school volleyball players competed for seven weeks in a summer season with no cancellations, Otto said.

Carrie Hill of Oconto Falls Youth Football said the private organization is moving forward with 65 fourth- through sixth-graders and 15 coaches, and a GoFundMe page raised more than $8,000 in 24 hours to support a seventh- and eighth-grade program if necessary,

“This program is supported, wanted, and needed,” Hill said.

Jon Dunks, Washington Middle School instructional coach, said his recommendation to suspend fall sports has not changed. The number of positive tests for COVID-19 has spiked in Oconto County since late July, including the county’s first three deaths from the virus.

“The recommendation that’s been given to you has not been made lightly,” Dunks said. “We recognize the fact that this isn’t what we want. We all would want for things to go to normal and for our kids to be out there participating in all athletics and being in school five days a week. We also recognize that the circumstances right now make that very difficult.”

The Oconto Falls School District opened classes Sept. 1 with students in school four days a week and Wednesday used for virtual learning and cleaning of buildings.

Board members Clint Gardebrecht and Adam Adler, whose sons were active in sports during the summer, said the students and their parents should make the decision.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, seventh- and eighth-grade boys are still going to be out there practicing,” Gardebrecht said. “I would almost bet the school may do a more stringent job of holding the coaches and everyone accountable to strict measures, not that the Youth Football programs aren’t.”

Jan Stranz, the board vice president, cast the only no vote.

“I don’t want to put your kids at risk any more than I already have,” Stranz said. “I really struggle with that.”