Suburban school leaders blast state agencies on conflicting basketball decisions
The Illinois High School Association's decision Wednesday to defy Gov. J.B. Pritzker's order to put high school basketball on hold set off a whirlwind of discussions, and frustration, from school administrators Thursday.
The IHSA opened the door for schools to play basketball beginning in November, putting school district administrators in the position of having to decide on the issue as the COVID-19 numbers across the state continue to spike.
"It's disappointing that the IHSA and the (Illinois Department of Public Health) are not able to get on the same page," Barrington Area Unit School District 220 Superintendent Brian Harris said. "It's frustrating from a superintendent's perspective that that is now pushed onto our plates. It makes it extremely difficult and puts us in a very difficult position as a district."
"Unfortunately, I don't think the IHSA is seeing the whole picture," Harris continued. "Yes, the social part and the emotional part of sports are all valid. But there's more to it, there's the whole educational component and we're in the middle of a pandemic."
The Illinois State Board of Education issued a statement late Wednesday imploring school districts to follow IDPH guidance. The statement said defying the guidance opens schools up to liability and other ramifications that may hurt school communities. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is saying the basketball season should be postponed until the spring and suggested schools defying the public health guidance could have public funding withheld.
The Chicago Public Schools followed Pritzker's lead, sending a memo to schools on Thursday announcing that girls and boys high school and elementary school basketball is postponed until further notice, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Harris said the liability issue is paramount.
"I have a responsibility to the taxpayers in my district to manage the liability of this situation and (playing basketball when it is considered high-risk by the IDPH) is going against my best judgment there," he said. "I want our kids to participate in sports. Absolutely. But I want it to be in a way that keeps our kids safe."
Naperville Unit School District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges spoke of the conflicts with the issue.
"Naperville 203 recognizes the physical, social, and emotional benefit that athletics and activities provide to all of our students," he said. "We have consistently used guidance from our state and local agencies to make decisions regarding returning to school and returning to play. The announcement yesterday by the Illinois High School Association and previous health guidance provided by the Illinois Department of Public Health are in conflict. We are in the process of reviewing our next steps to ensure our decision is in the best interest of our student athletes, student body and community. It is disappointing our state agencies cannot work collaboratively to establish a consistent set of guidelines."
Glenbard District 87 Superintendent David Larson acknowledged that high school athletes and coaches are eager to play the season, but he also spoke to the potential obstacles in moving ahead with a season, against the guidance of the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education.
"We know the important role sports play in the greater community regarding participation, morale. ... There's just so many important take-aways and benefits of high school sports," Larson said. "We are having a lot of conversations. In the coming days you will probably see districts working together, and you will see us arrive at what's best moving forward given this predicament."
New Trier High School Athletic Director Augie Fontanetta, who is in his first term as a member of the IHSA board of directors, said Wednesday's board meeting was focused on what the board feels is best for students.
"Because I'm new to the board I don't have a lot of background on the conversations that have been going on," said Fontanetta, an Arlington Heights resident. "The board did a really good job of putting kids at the center of the discussion and in going along with the recommendations of SMAC (the IHSA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee). Each school district will make a decision as to what they feel is best. The focus was on students and to see if we could move forward with the basketball season."
Fontanetta is the only athletic director on the board. The other nine members are principals. The board has representatives from 10 divisions statewide.
The IHSA's SMAC is made up of 10 individuals whose professions include school administrators, certified athletic trainers and doctors.
Warren superintendent John Ahlgrim said his district will wait to make a decision.
"We won't make any decisions on winter sports until Nov. 10 when we have a special board meeting," he said. "I think there will also be the bigger decision of not being in school but doing sports."
Christine Sefcik, superintendent of Grant Community High School District 124 in Fox Lake, expressed surprise at the IHSA's decision.
"I was very surprised to receive IHSA's decision on basketball given the IDPH action Tuesday to move that to a high risk sport," she said. "Superintendents from the (Northern Lake County Conference) met this morning to discuss the conflicting guidance received from IHSA, Gov. Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education. We are definitely hoping these agencies come together and provide us with additional guidance that isn't in direct conflict with one another.
"We have not made any decisions regarding basketball yet, nor will we do so quickly. We are still awaiting the sport specific guidelines from IHSA for the low risk sports that have been approved to move forward and for basketball. We need to review those in detail. Also, we are going to remain optimistic some common ground is found between IHSA and the state. In the meantime, we will begin discussions locally and within the NLCC community to consider what action is in the best interests of our student-athletes.
"As a district in Region 9, we are currently in mitigation and on an adaptive pause from our blended in-person learning plan at the recommendation of the Lake County Health Department. We know the tremendous value of having our students involved beyond the school day. At the same time, we need to take into consideration the data provided and concerns expressed by local and state health officials as it relates to the health and well-being of our students."
Larson also expressed frustration with the current communication between the primary players.
"Personally, I'm disappointed with the ISBE and IHSA where they are creating this disconnect," he said. "These are state agencies that have the jurisdiction and responsibility to make decisions for what's best for all of us. You figure there's hundreds of high schools and they just created this huge disconnect. I'm just disappointed.
"I had higher expectations and hopes for how they make decisions. They clearly need to, like we do every day, work together and compromise and arrive at a workable plan. Honestly, just disappointed that they aren't on the same page. It just creates more conflict and discord. Parents trust us, they pay taxes, they trust the state agencies to have the students' best interests and when they have differing views, there needs to be give and take, they need to arrive at a direction. It just creates conflict and dissension at our levels, at our communities that we have to contend with now."
Kaneland High School Athletic Director David Rohlman met with the IHSA and statewide athletic directors Wednesday.
"People were very pleased the IHSA is standing up for our kids," Rohlman said. "(But) it does put school districts in an awkward situation."
Rohlman was in a Zoom meeting with coaches Wednesday night when ISBE released its statement.
"It's pretty hard to say out of one side of your mouth to say you are trying to protect kids and at the same time you are going to take funding away from the schools," he said. "That doesn't make any sense to me," he said.
• Daily Herald staff writers John Lemon, Jake Griffin and Patricia Babcock McGraw contributed to this story.