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LKSD school board relaxes COVID-19 sports policies after opponents cancel home games in Bethel

Freshman Madden Cockroft dives for the ball.
Olivia Ebertz
Freshman Madden Cockroft dives for the ball.

The Bethel Warriors girls basketball team has yet to host a home game this season. Their opponents have cancelled every game because of the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD)’s COVID-19 testing policies. On Jan. 17, following a torrent of complaints, the LKSD school board relaxed several of the district’s COVID-19 policies.

Jan. 7 was supposed to be the Bethel Regional High School (BRHS) girls basketball team’s first home game in nearly two years. But their opponents, the Palmer Moose, canceled their trip to Bethel.

BRHS Athletic Director Darren Lieb said that’s because LKSD requires visiting teams to get tested for COVID-19 both before they travel to Bethel and after they arrive. Lieb said that the visiting team did not want any players to get stuck in Bethel if they tested positive and had to isolate.

The LKSD school board held an emergency meeting on Jan. 17 to review its COVID-19 policies regarding sports.

“This week should be our busy week preparing for the Donlin tournament, which is our big home tournament,” said Regina Lieb, the Bethel girls varsity basketball coach who called into the board meeting. “But unfortunately, our bubble of excitement has been deflated in a matter of days. Our entire home schedule has been canceled.”

Over 20 other people, including student athletes, parents, and coaches, also called into the LKSD board meeting. Their top request was for the district to remove the requirement that visiting teams have to test in Bethel.

“Being able to play at home is important not only for our team, but for our families. At home games brings excitement and pride, which carries throughout the school and community,” said Bryn Garrison, a player on the Bethel girls’ basketball team.

Garrison and other girls basketball players talked about how difficult it was last year without any basketball games.

Peter Crow, captain of the Bethel boys basketball team, said that having sports this year has helped students keep their grades up and stay healthier. And he said that home games are especially important to seniors like him.

“We all have parents and grandparents who want to watch us play, and some of us for the last time,” Crow said.

YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges, who attended the meeting by phone, supported the change in testing requirements. She said that visiting teams could test immediately before traveling instead of after arriving in Bethel.

“So they don't get stranded in a town that they're visiting with a positive test,” Hodges said. “So testing before departure, as close as possible to departure before games for local teams, and then five days after returning from travel.”

The LKSD board unanimously voted to approve that change in testing requirements. Visiting teams will now only be required to receive a negative test before traveling to LKSD communities.

Many of the students, parents, and coaches calling into the Jan. 17 board meeting pressured the district to go further with loosening COVID-19 policies. They asked to allow students to play sports without masks.

LKSD’s own policy does not require athletes to wear masks while they are exercising. However, the City of Bethel’s mask ordinance does. Recently, LKSD started complying with that ordinance for games in Bethel.

Some parents said that their children have asthma, and wearing masks while running makes it difficult to breathe. Steven Boney, a parent in Bethel, is concerned that the mask requirement in Bethel will cause more home games to get canceled.

“No team is going to want to come to Bethel and wear a mask to play basketball,” Boney said.

YKHC does not support students playing sports without masks. Hodges said that masks are one way to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 at sporting events, which she says has been known to happen.

“Basketball has been associated with several very large outbreaks in our region. Not only students who attended the games or played the sports, but also many others who are secondary cases associated with the outbreak,” Hodges said. “There should be universal mandatory masking at all times during practice and games.”

Hodges reminded participants in the meeting that the Y-K Delta is experiencing its largest surge in COVID-19 cases ever, and ICU capacity around the state is still strained.

But the LKSD board decided unanimously to ask the Bethel City Council for an exemption from the city’s mask mandate so that students can practice and play games without a mask.

The LKSD board also directed the district’s administration to look at expanding the size of crowds at home games, depending on the size of the gym. They also voted to allow students to shake hands with their opponents before and after matches.

Greg Kim was a news reporter for KYUK from 2019-2022.
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