NEWPORT — About 50 high school athletes, their parents, members of booster clubs and additional community members gathered during the lunch hour Wednesday in downtown Newport to rally against the Lincoln County School District’s recent decision to opt out of full-contact prep football while the county remains in the state’s COVID-19 high-risk category.
The protest, staged on the sidewalks at the corner of Highway 101 and Highway 20 from noon to 1 p.m., was punctuated with people wearing Newport, Toledo and Waldport high school colors and holding signs that urged the district to reverse its stance and allow full-contact football when practices are allowed to begin Monday, with games as early as March 1.
Passing vehicles showed their support for rally attendees and their message by honking horns, raising fists in solidarity and even shouting back the message common to many of the protesters’ signs: “Let them play.” Those shows of support never failed to draw cheers from members of the group staging the protest.
“We’re just trying to be heard, you know?” Toledo senior Jaxon Rozewski, quarterback of the Boomer football team, said at the rally. “We’ve got a lot of kids that have been waiting a long time just to play sports, and we’ve invested a lot of time in everything else — school, keeping up grades. And especially for our senior year, I don’t want to see it all fall apart. We’re just trying to be heard and maybe get a pass to play contact sports.”
On Feb. 10, Gov. Kate Brown announced changes to pandemic-prevention protocols that allow schools and organizations to host full-contact sports such as football in counties in Oregon’s lower and moderate-risk categories. For counties at the high and extreme-risk levels, schools and organizations were given the choice to opt in to provide football and other contact sports should they follow increased safety protocols, such as on-site testing by March 1.
Two days later, the Lincoln County School District announced its schools would opt out of full-contact football while the county remains in the high-risk category, but would reevaluate if downgraded to moderate risk. The earliest Lincoln County could move to moderate risk is Friday, Feb. 26.
Susan Traschel, public information officer at Lincoln County Public Health, said Thursday it’s likely the county will know around the middle of next week whether it will be downgraded to moderate risk, potentially paving the way for the school district to provide full-contact football practices and games.
“We are hovering right around the moderate level right now,” Trachsel said. “We should have a pretty good idea of where we stand when the state releases the data for the week through this Saturday. If case rates drop significantly and it’s clear, we should be able to know before the state tells us that we’re moving categories.”
On Thursday, Majalise Tolan, LCSD athletic director, told the News-Times the district came to its decision because the Oregon School Activities Association requires schools in high and extreme risk-counties to provide on-site COVID-19 testing to athletes competing in contact sports. That’s something the district isn’t willing to do.
“We did not anticipate that testing would become a requirement,” Tolan said. “We’re not a testing site, and we don’t want to be a testing site. We did not pursue an option for training for testing because we’re focused on the education and coaching of our youth.”
Ashley Catalfamo, president of the Waldport Irish Booster Club as well as an organizer of Wednesday’s protest and a petition that gathered 475 signatures as of Thursday morning in support of full-contact football at LCSD schools, wrote an email Thursday to School Superintendent Karen Gray, obtained by the News-Times.
“Districts with higher positivity rates and much larger student body numbers than ours are opting in and already have all grades back, in person, at least two days a week,” Catalfamo wrote. “Yet our district seems determined to keep our youth locked up, depressed, sedentary, anxious and uneducated. Parents and students should be allowed to choose to opt in. Time and time again this ‘leadership’ has failed our children.”
Another organizer, Tammie Johnson, told the News-Times at the rally she was frustrated with a lack of communication from the school district.
“There’s no science that says that it’s not safe for us to play,” Johnson said. “Karen Gray has not given us any answers in all of this.”
Traschel said her office has no opinion on the school district’s football decision, but values its commitment to student safety.
“Whenever a school district takes a hard look at the safety of students and staff, we certainly appreciate it,” Traschel said. “We don’t tell them what to do. If they decide if the metrics change to get full-contact sports going, we support them in that too, and hope they manage that as well.”
Tolan told the News-Times that district football coaches and administrators have been scrambling since January to come up with options and schedules for both full and non-contact football participation. The OSAA is granting schools that opt out of full-contact football additional playing options, such as 7-on-7 games, flag football and linemen challenges.
“The OSAA said it will give some guidance for non-contact football options soon, and we’re expecting that in the next few days. Then we’ll have a real idea of what we’re going to be seeing,” Tolan said.
Catalfamo told the News-Times earlier in the week that her complaints aren’t with Waldport High School administration and sports coaches, rather it’s with district administration, which had yet to respond to her multiple previous emails. On Wednesday, Rozewski echoed those sentiments with regard to Toledo High School.
“I’m getting a lot of support from the school itself, it’s mostly just the school district because I feel like our administration is doing all they can,” Rozewski said. “They’ve been doing great with following all the guidelines, so thanks to them. This is just us against the district, trying to get everybody to be able to play and to get on the same page.”
Robert Hoefs, owner of multiple Newport businesses and a coach in the Newport Baseball & Softball Association, attended the rally to show his support for high school athletes, though his kids, ages 9 and 11, aren’t yet in high school. He said he traveled last summer to Florence to coach his kids on the diamond, and knows of many other families traveling out of county during the current school year to provide an opportunity for their children to play sports where more participation is allowed.
“There’s parents here in this community that are driving to the valley, into Corvallis, taking their kids to places that are open, and there’s a ton of them that have been doing that,” Hoefs said. “There’s some parents out there that can do that because financially they can make that happen. But it’s really sad that there’s a whole bunch more kids who can’t play because their parents work or just can’t drive an hour to some other facility to get their kids on a field.”
Tolan said the school district remains committed to the education, safety and physical wellness of its students. She added that LCSD takes pride in seeing the community come out in support of its youths.
“We’re really proud of Lincoln County because we obviously have a community that advocates strongly for the kids,” she said. “We really appreciate that, and look forward to seeing their continued support once this altered state of sports comes back.”
Earlier this month, the 18-year-old Rozewski signed a letter of intent to continue his education and football career at Western Oregon University. He said that should the district reverse course and allow Toledo to play a full-contact football season, he wouldn’t think twice about participating, though he’d be risking his football future with the possibility of injury.
“Oh, no doubt I’ll play,” he said. “I’m still a Toledo boy, still a Toledo Boomer, and I’m just going to keep investing all I can into the program and supporting the other programs in Lincoln County, so I’m just going to keep doing my thing. Once the time to go to Western rolls around, I’ll be committed to them, but for now, I’m 100 percent Toledo.”
Catalfamo said her group, which has a Facebook page under the name “Let Them Play Lincoln County,” plans to host another rally from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at the same location. To read and/or sign the group’s petition, go to https://bit.ly/3ued0Wi.
District schools plan to begin volleyball, boys and girls cross country and soccer and non-contact football practices on Monday.