(Chisago Lakes' volleyball program, varsity through ninth-grade teams. Photo courtesy Kirsten Thompson, Eye Candy Creative Photography)
The already-squeezed high school fall sports season in Minnesota has been especially vexing for the Chisago Lakes varsity football and volleyball teams.
The volleyball team has played three matches. The football team has played one game.
A school board meeting Thursday evening is expected to decide whether they'll get any more.
School district superintendent Dean Jennissen announced Tuesday what he called the "extraordinary measure'' of immediately moving the 1,100-student school in Lindstrom back into distance learning for the second time this fall because of rapidly rising COVID-19 cases.
"Community spread from random points has overwhelmed our high school program and the ability to safely maintain our learning environment,'' Jennissen wrote to district families.
As of Thursday, the school has more than 150 students required to quarantine, eight positive student cases of COVID, two positive staff cases and 10 staff quarantined, athletic director Jodi Otte said. The students in quarantine include the B-squad football team and ninth-grade and B-squad volleyball teams, she said.
"In the last two weeks our student cases have increased from 13% to 20%,'' Otte said. "Our cases in October in Chisago County make up over half of all cases (year-to-date), September and October cases make up three-fourths of all cases and our county is averaging 30+ cases per day.''
The volleyball team's match Thursday evening at Monticello was canceled. The football team's opponent for its home game on Friday, St. Cloud Apollo, is no longer available. Fearing the game would be canceled, Apollo, also rebounding from COVID-related cancellations, found another team to play.
It's the second time since the teams began practicing in late September that they were relegated to "virtual'' practices and no games because COVID forced the school into distance learning.
It ended a streak of three matches played by coach Hannah Lindstrom's volleyball team, most recently a 3-1 victory against Big Lake on Monday, its first of the season.
So instead of holding her team's 10th in-person practice of the season on Wednesday, Lindstrom convened the team's 15th virtual practice, a mix of Zoom call time spent working out together before embarking on individualized practice activities.
The first 14 virtual practices were held consecutively to start the season, when the team had to cancel its first three matches while the school was in distance learning.
''To say it's been a challenge would be an understatement,'' Lindstrom said. "We are doing our best to be creative to keep our athletes connected and healthy, both physically and mentally.''
The football team's first game of the season against Becker was canceled just two days before it was scheduled to be played on Oct. 10. Two more cancellations followed before players could resume in-person practice on Oct. 26.
"They just bought in,'' coach Bill Weiss said. "I'm very impressed with them. They just worked hard and are just fighting for the opportunity to play this game that they love. They know there's no guarantees.''
Last Saturday they took the field at home against Cambridge-Isanti, playing its fourth game. With their offense using a limited playbook, the Wildcats scored a touchdown with 27 seconds left to trail 35-34. A two-point conversion try for the lead and a possible victory failed.
"The joy and the excitement that those guys had on Saturday, I mean you could feel something out there,'' Weiss said. "They were certainly grateful for that opportunity and we certainly hope to get more of those. I'm sure they're not taking anything for granted anymore.''
Both teams can only be virtual spectators Thursday evening during the school board's community meeting, when Jennissen said a decision on sports and activities will be discussed. He said board members are "very well aware'' of community pressure to keep them going, with many members sending e-mails.
Lindstrom had planned to be coaching during the meeting, but with the game canceled she now plans to speak. She said she was encouraged by what the Anoka-Hennepin School District did last week to resume sports while its high schools shifted to distance learning. The district, relying on updated guidance from the state education department, incorporated community and school-area COVID data along with county-level numbers to justify its decision.
"We just want to be treated individually as a program and be able to continue until we have a reason not to,'' she said, "and not just be shut down for a policy.''
The COVID situation has become more dire in recent days, with case numbers soaring statewide to new highs. Otte said, "Our current building and county numbers are greater now than they were when we transitioned to distance learning the first time.''
Wrote Jennissen, "We hoped to get (students) off to a solid start for Term 2, but we just couldn't hang onto it even two more days,'' he said. "Public health experts are telling us hospitals are being overrun and the capacity to handle additional community spread is just not there. Current County data continues to demonstrate the ever-growing COVID spike that is happening in our community.''
School athletic leaders plan to present multiple options to the school board, ranging from closing down activities to keeping teams playing.
"There is no playbook for a pandemic," Otte said. "These times are stressful, emotional and challenging for everyone. We want our students to be in school and participate in activities. Our number one priority has been and will continue to be the health and safety of our students, staff, families and community."
An online petition, started by Lindstrom's husband, has over 1,700 people signed on to support playing sports while in distance learning. Her team, including nine seniors, created videos and letters to share "so the school board can hear from those directly affected the most,'' she said.
"Just the fact that they're thinking about it and deciding about it is encouraging. I think that if they had made up their mind, it wouldn't be a discussion even at this point. So we're hopeful.''
Junior Ashley Peltier will be among those watching. The 5-11 middle blocker said, "I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said volleyball is my life.''
Peltier, who hopes to continue playing in college, worries that "if this season is canceled it will have a huge negative impact on my chances.'' No fresh film or stats and no playing in front of coaches put her at a disadvantage while other recruits continue to play.
"It is also frustrating because volleyball used to be the place for me to go and forget about all the other negative things for a few hours,'' she said. "With school and everything else so inconsistent, it would be nice to always have volleyball. But with it constantly getting canceled because of cases outside the team, it is frustrating to see other schools continuing to play even if their school has gone online.''
Peltier said the senior-laden team includes girls she has played with since eighth grade. "They are some of my closest friends. This is our last year to all play together and I was looking forward to playing with them and seeing how far we have all come,'' she said.
Lindstrom said the seniors highlight "the best talent we've seen in our program for a long time. I hurt for them. Many of them are planning on playing after high school. Yeah, it's tough.''
As for Weiss, in his 29th year of coaching, he talked earlier this week like someone preparing his team to take the field this weekend.
''I told the kids the first day of practice, we're not teaching football because in 10 years you're going block and tackle somebody. We're doing it for the life skills. One of those is dealing with adversity. I guess we've had our share of that.
''The big part of it here is just learning the lesson of being resilient and despite circumstances we can't control, we just got to push on and prepare,'' he said. "That's been our biggest lesson and I've been very proud of our guys and how they responded.''