Frustrated parents, students speak out about fall sports in the Oconto Unified School District

High COVID-19 rates in Oconto County could keep high school athletes on the sidelines.
Published: Sep. 11, 2020 at 4:46 PM CDT
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OCONTO, Wis. (WBAY) - A special meeting of the Oconto Unified School District convened late Friday afternoon.

Parents, students and coaches in the district stand ready to take advantage of the opportunity for public comments to express their frustration about fall sports.

“We were excited to start when the WIAA released that it would be a go," said Michelle Bahrke, an Oconto Unified School District parent. “Everyone was so excited.”

Bahrke’s daughter plays volleyball at the high school and has been training for the season ahead.

The decision to move ahead with fall sports in the Packerland Conference looks a little bit different than other conferences in our area dependent on the number of COVID-19 cases at a county level.

“Oconto Falls just down the road from us, they get to play conference games. They’re in the same COVID category as us,” said Bahrke.

“Across the state, every district and conference is making it’s own decision, the WIAA didn’t make that,” said Adam DeWitt, Principal at Oconto Unified School District.

Packerland Conference Commissioner Mike Holtz tells Action 2 News he does not have any decision-making power. Instead, he facilitates discussions between the principals and athletic directors at each of the nine school districts to help them make the best decisions possible.

Conversations started in July about how to move forward with the fall athletic season, and the conference unanimously approved a recommendation to its member schools that “the only acceptable risk levels for interscholastic competition are low and medium as determined by the Wisconsin DHS.”

Those numbers get updated every Wednesday, and for the first week, all counties in the Packerland Conference are experiencing a high COVID-19 case burden. Effectively, games for almost every fall sport have been cancelled or postponed until the new numbers come out.

It’s caused even coaches to speak out to the board and stand behind letting the kids play.

“I’m asking if the superintendents might be able to negotiate, compromise, talk to their principals and be more lenient; because this metric thing, we’re never going to play,” said Nancee Bucheger, the high school volleyball coach.

“I really hurt for the kids, because we’ve dangled the carrot,” said Bahrke. “They’ve had three-hour practices, four-hour practices. ‘You’re going to have games,’ and then, they find out, ‘Oh, there’s not a game on Tuesday,’ because they’ll reassess the numbers on Wednesday for Thursday’s game which we probably won’t have, because we’re going to be high.”

A letter from the Oconto Unified School District on the issue of fall sports reminds parents that school districts outside of the conference have different standards. It reads in part, “Creating a path/season for both athletic and academic competitions has been extremely taxing mentally and emotionally. There is nothing more we want than for our students to participate in what they love.”

It’s causing administrators to exhaust all options if they don’t see the case burden coming down.

“The next option would be for Oconto to step outside of the conference to play non-conference matches,” said DeWitt.

However, the emphasis is making sure those games and activities can take place while also keeping the students and the community safe.

“They will wear the masks, they will wash their hands. They will do whatever they have to do to play,” said Bahrke.

In the letter from the Oconto Unified School District, officials write, “As we need to make decisions best for our athletes, we need to make these decisions according to the conference. That situation has been very fluid, and even as of today, continues to change.”