Members of the Rhinelander High School boys’ hockey team hold a captains’ practice Friday, Dec. 23 at the Rhinelander Ice Arena. The team cannot formally practice until Jan. 2 under a joint decision by the School District of Rhinelander and the Oneida Country Health Department who are trying to control an outbreak of pertussis, but a majority of team members showed up for a voluntary practices that were held without RHS coaches in attendance. (BoB Mainhardt for the River News)
12/27/2016 7:32:00 AM Shoutouts & Callouts All involved in pertussis debate in a tough spot
It's never easy when adults disagree over what they feel is best for children they are responsible for.
That was painfully evident during the Dec. 19 School District of Rhinelander board of education meeting when Oneida County Health Department officials heard the pleas of parents and coaches to shorten a practice and competition ban prompted by an outbreak of pertussis.
The next day, the health department, in conjuction with district superintendent Kelli Jacobi, brushed those pleas aside, keeping district facilties shuttered and teams from gathering (formally, at least), until Jan. 2.
It seems a little silly, at face value, and it would be easy to condemn coaches and parents for putting sports ahead of the health and well-being of a community, but I'm not entirely convinced that's the case.
This situation is a hard one for me to wrap my head around as I truly believe each side has the best interests of those they serve in mind. Linda Conlon and her staff at the health department firmly believe 17 days with no school activities of any kind will be the best course to curb an outbreak of whooping cough that is centered at Rhinelander High School but they say is spreading to other schools and public facilities.
Parents want their kids to be active over the break and winter coaches don't want the hard work their players have put in over the last month and a half to be flushed away by a circumstance that's outside of their control. Many of those folks expressed concern that the duration of the closure is extreme, conveniently timed around the Christmas holiday and would not have been as long if the outbreak had reached a critical mass on Jan. 16, opposed to Dec. 16.
On one hand, Conlon is saying, "That's our job, to protect all of you from becoming ill." On the other coaches, like Hodag hoops coach Derek Lemmens are saying, "It is absolutely going to destroy everything a varsity program does the entire year."
In part, the coaches' concern is the result of another rule. Not only can their teams not officially congregate until Jan. 2 they cannot play a game until Jan. 7 due to WIAA regulations that mandate a minimum number of practices following a long layoff.
The health department is saying "social distancing" is the best practice in this case, but parents argued last Monday that kids will find ways to congregate anyway. That's been true from what we've observed in the 11 days since the ban was put in place. Consider the following:
On Dec. 17, one day after schools were shut down, no fewer than 20 boys' and girls' hockey players from Rhinelander High School, along a few other RHS students and several other kids and adults, were at the Rhinelander Ice Arena for a free open skating session put on by the rink at the culmination of its toy drive for Kindness for Kids.
On Dec. 20, the day the health department and school officials reaffirmed the closure of district facilities and activities, 27 Rhinelander high school and middle school Nordic skiers were transported by their parents to Minocqua Winter Park for a competition. The kids skied together and congregated both in the staging area for the race and inside the chalet.
On Dec. 22, a full 12 days before official practices can resume, kids were gathering anyway for unofficial captains' practices at non-district facilities. We have photographed these practices for boys' basketball, girls' basketball, boys' hockey and girls' hockey. In many cases alumni with no direct ties to the coaching staff were on hand to practice and/or scrimmage with team members.
These practices were not mandatory, and the head coaches were nowhere to be found, but kids were there anyway. They could be greatly endangering themselves and others - if you side with the health department's take - or, if you listen to the students themselves, are simply doing what healthy kids do when there's no school.
"You've got to start somewhere," RHS junior Alec Lowry told me after last Tuesday's ski race in Minocqua. "As a team, we're developing. We've got a lot of new talent and you got to get out and start skiing at some point. You don't get better if you don't ski."
I understand and respect that the health department erred on the side of caution. Of the panel they've assembled for last Monday's meetings, I've had several first-hand dealings with three of them in the past and can vouch for their character. Conlon is a former student-athlete and current WIAA gymnastics judge. Health department nurse Rob Deede is a coach himself and does a wonderful job with a Hodag BMX Club that continues to blossom. School nurse Kerri Schmidt is the mother of the most successful football player to come from Rhinelander in the last decade - former Northwestern running back Jacob Schmidt - and had three other boys involved in sports. I know they recognize where the coaches and parents who spoke at last Monday's meeting are coming from.
That's why I found it a bit odd that their decision to reaffirm the practice ban came less than 24 hours following that meeting. While I appreciate a prompt response as much as the next person, I have to wonder if changes in the number of cases reported could have impacted the decision in any way?
I equate it to a watch or warning issued by the National Weather Service for an incoming storm. A length of time is given for the watch or warning but that forecast product - as the weather service likes to call it - could change based on new information. Warnings can be reissued for a longer duration if its clear the weather event is going to continue. Conversely, they can be canceled early or simply allowed to expire if the event no longer poses a threat to the watch/warning area.
In that vein, if a review of the data this week shows significant improvement in terms of getting this outbreak under control, then I think it would be reasonable to reconsider keeping teams from holding organized practices this week. If there is no improvement, or the numbers are getting worse then, by all means, keep the ban in place as long as is necessary.
For what it's worth, I shared this story with my sister - who lives in Vilas County and is a nurse for a local health care provider - and she sided with the Oneida County Health Department's decision to play it safe. It's not an easy spot they have been put in and are doing what they think is best with the information provided. Coaches, parents and players, in turn, have been put in a tough spot and are now doing what they think is best with the information provided to get through this situation with the least amount of disruption.
I just hope, for everyone's sake, both sides have got this right.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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