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Morton School Board Balks At Winter Sports 'Pause'

Morton 709 via NFHS Network Livestream

The Morton basketball team is benched after the Illinois High School Association bowed to Gov. JB Pritzker's announcement Tuesday effectively "pausing" the winter sports season as he tightens statewide COVID-19 restrictions.
But if the board had its way, that might not be the case. Multiple board members said during Tuesday evening's meeting they were prepared to vote to let kids play indoor sports again.

That includes Dr. Shad Beaty, the Morton school board president and an OSF HealthCare pediatrician. While he said COVID-19 is real, he thinks the restrictions are "getting past the point of ludicrous."

"I'm ready to push forward on this. There are personal choices to be made here," Beaty said. "I've got children, and if I say they can dance, if I say they can play basketball, I'm their parent, I can say they can do that. Every other parent has the right to say whether or not their kid can participate with my children or not. But I'm kinda done waiting."

Beaty said he would have been satisfied even if Morton was able to play Washington every Friday night--or even a regular red-and-white scrimmage.

Jeff Schmidgall, another board member, said he agreed with Beaty.

"I feel sorry for our athletes. People aren't just training during basketball season or soccer season. They're training year-round for these things. And to have borderline scientific backup to decisions that are being made right now impact these kids. I feel sorry for them," Schmidgall said.

Beaty also accused Pritzker of hypocrisy, referencing a widely-circulated video that shows the governor walking through a crowded post-election sidewalk celebration in Chicago just days after quarantining due to a potential COVID-19 exposure.

"Today's Tier 3 is a slap in the face when our leaders themselves do not follow these guidelines," said Beaty, adding the time has come to decide how much risk the community is willing to tolerate.

When asked at a press conference earlier this week, Pritzker said he was cleared to leave quarantine early by health officials.

Board member David Cross said he doesn't expect that coronavirus situation to change anytime soon.

"When you look at the risk, it's not going to be any different in the spring. It's going to be the same it is right now," he said.

Board member Bart Rinkenberger said he believes restrictions will continue until the public takes a stand.

"When it's going to end is when people say 'no more.' I believe it's time to say no more. However that looks, let's go," Rinkenberger said.

Athletic director Scott Jones said Tuesday's decision was a big blow to coaches who still had kids practicing for an upcoming season. He said they're now looking for other ways to keep their players active.

But even before Tuesday's announcement, only about 10 percent of those responding to a recent IHSA survey intended to play this winter. Within Morton's Mid-Illini Conference, Jones said local schools that had intended to play included Peoria Christian, Brimfield, and Elmwood. But larger schools in the conference were choosing to sit it out, he said.

The Morton School District currently reports 12 students who have tested positive for the virus.

Currently, about 200 students, or about 10 percent of in-person learners, are in quarantine.

"As much as I know some of our board is not crazy about quarantining students, I will tell you quarantining of students has really helped and kept the spread of the virus at a minimum in our schools," said Superintendent Jeff Hill, who cited the decision to quarantine the fifth and sixth grades at Lettie Brown a few weeks ago as an example of that approach's success.

But the board seemed to agree they should try to "push the envelope" in terms of what they can accomplish under the auspices of local control, while aiming to keep students safe.

"We're elected officials. We represent a lot of people. I can't continue to just follow blindly when there's absolute hypocrisy. There's a lack of what I would call solid science," Beaty said. 

Editor's note: There are currently 12 students who have tested positive, not 12 since the beginning of the school year. We regret the error.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.