On July 16, Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Dr. Philip Huang issued an order delaying in-person instruction until Sept. 8 and directing that all school-sponsored activities, including athletic workouts, be delayed until the first day of in-person classes. Since that day, the picture of which athletes get to practice – and who gets to decide – has gotten muddier for RISD students and their parents. A power struggle has developed, with state and county politicians duking it out on Twitter and Richardson ISD officials standing confused on the sidelines. Wildcat athletes have given up consulting authorities and taken their fitness futures into their own hands. Parents say the teens’ unsupervised workouts run counter to COVID best practices.
Huang’s order was based on a 7-day average, at that time, of about 1,000 new cases per day and applied to Dallas County only. Collin and other nearby counties with fewer cases were under no such restrictions, and Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered that religious schools, such as Jesuit College Prep, did not have to obey. The problem for LHHS Athletic Coordinator Lonnie Jordan and other RISD officials is that RISD schools have Jesuit in their district and Collin County teams on their schedules.
“They’ve got footballs out and whistles out, and they’re working to get better. We can’t do that,” said Jordan. “The playing field, at this point, is not level. Keep in mind my non-district schedule is all Collin County schools. Understand, we’re going to go in there and win, but I’ve got to find a way to take 14 days of practice and outdo what Plano and Plano East have done in 11 weeks.”
In a non-binding guidance letter Tuesday, Paxton said school officials are the ones to decide when and how to open schools, not county health authorities. Some Texas districts, including Clear Creek ISD in Harris County, used that letter to restart workouts.
On Wednesday, RISD Athletic Director Leslie Slovak and Superintendent Dr. Jeannie Stone gave the green light for RISD to resume strength and conditioning workouts for football, tennis, cross country, volleyball and cheerleading. Schools scheduled workouts for Monday the 10th, and Coach Jordan sent out email blasts to notify players and parents.
At a regularly scheduled Zoom meeting Wednesday between Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and area superintendents, Jenkins made it clear that Dallas County teams were not yet authorized to practice. Following that meeting, RISD again canceled workouts until the first day of school. County Commissioner J.J. Koch tweeted that Jenkins had threatened a temporary restraining order [TRO] against districts to stop the practice – a claim Jenkins denies.
“Either Judge Jenkins [threatened the TRO] and he lied about it on social media that he didn’t say it,” said Koch in a video posted to his Facebook page, “or one of the superintendents, Dr. Stone, I don’t know her all that well, I’ve seen her, I don’t think she would do something like that, but for some reason tried to throw Judge Jenkins under the bus and say, ‘hey listen, he threatened us with a TRO, we’re not doing this.’ If she lied, then she needs to be called out about that. That’s poor leadership.”
In an email to Lake Highlands Advocate, Jenkins denied threatening a TRO. Dr. Stone supported his account of the meeting.
“Some misinformation has been circulating about how this decision was made, so I feel it’s necessary to explain what happened with accurate information,” wrote Stone in a Friday night letter to parents explaining RISD’s decision to resume – then suspend – summer athletic programs before the start of in-person classes. “Superintendents from Dallas County school districts have an opportunity to participate in periodic conference calls with Dallas County to ask questions and provide feedback, and that happened on Wednesday. During that call, in response to a question, Dallas County staff confirmed that the July 16 order still applies to all in-person programs, including in-person summer conditioning and skills programs. Later in the call, in response to a question from a different school district, a staff member from Dallas County confirmed that an entity defying a health order could be subject to a legal action such as a temporary restraining order.
“It has been publicly stated that Dallas County Judge Jenkins threatened RISD with legal action during the call. He did no such thing. I did not perceive that RISD was being threatened in any way, and appreciated the clarification that the county order remains in effect for all our in-person programs.”
So where does this leave parents and athletes who wish to comply with competing and contradictory authorities?
Lisa Johnson has two boys in Jordan’s Wildcat football program – one on varsity and one on JV. She says Dallas County’s order hasn’t stopped the boys from working out – it just stopped them from working out with supervision.
“Workouts with coaches are safer,” Johnson says, “because coaches monitor the players and enforce the rules regarding masks and social distancing. We had no incidents when we worked out in June and July, before Judge Jenkins shut it all down.”
“I feel like we are in a political arm wrestle, a tug-of-war, and our kids are being pulled back and forth,” says Johnson. “Meantime, our kids are working out to the best of their ability, heading up to Wildcat Stadium, throwing the football and running stairs. It’s the least safe, the way they are doing it now. They are exercising without oversight. People are calling the school saying, ‘Hey, kids are up at the school without masks.’ Well, yes, they probably are.”
Johnson says players in some sports are continuing to practice with their club teams, and she’s even heard some Dallas County squads are traveling to Plano or Allen where practices are not prohibited.
“It’s definitely not fair, because we know other teams are working out,” says Johnson, adding that Plano and Plano East are early Wildcat football opponents. “But that’s not really our focus. Our focus is that our kids are not put in a position to be safe. We’ve been handcuffed. The coaches can’t interact with the kids at the stadium. It would be best if the coaches were there to enforce masks and social distancing. They did it in June and July, and not one kid got COVID, plus they made all gains [athletically].”
Dr. Stone says her staff is working with Dallas County authorities to request resumption of safe and regulated workouts. You can read her full letter here.
You can read Dr. Stone’s letter to parents below.
RISD Strength and Conditioning/Skills Program Parents,
I’m reaching out to provide information and an explanation about our decisions regarding the summer strength and conditioning and skills programs for our student-athletes. AS our kids prepare for fall seasons we know it’s important to have them in structured, regulated environments to help them physically prepare while being monitored by their coaches. These programs had been successfully occurring over the summer, but were suspended on July 16 due to the order from the Dallas County Health Department that discontinued all in-person student activities until after Labor Day as one way of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in our community. RISD has been in compliance with that order since that time. Also since that time, we have learned that many of our young people have been working out and preparing on their own, in small or larger groups, unregulated and unmonitored programs. Our coaches and athletics staff are concerned that in many cases, the suspension of the formal programs have put some students in a less safe position on their own than in our programs.
As COVID cases started going down in Dallas County from all-time highs, some other school districts resumed their summer conditioning programs, and others began planning to do so. After consulting with our athletics department, I made the decision that the regulated RISD summer athletics programs could resume on August 10, as our athletic coordinators announced this week. We believed that with the resumption of summer programs becoming more prevalent in school districts across the county, that it would be permissible to resume our structured programs that had built in safety protocols. We know now that assumption wasn’t accurate, and as the person who made that decision, this was ultimately my mistake, and I apologize to our athletics community, and especially our coaches and students for that assumption.
Some misinformation has been circulating about how this decision was made, so I feel it’s necessary to explain what happened with accurate information. Superintendents from Dallas County school districts have an opportunity to participate in periodic conference calls with Dallas County to ask questions and provide feedback, and that happened on Wednesday. During that call, in response to a question, Dallas County staff confirmed that the July 16 order still applies to all in-person programs, including in-person summer conditioning and skills programs. Later in the call, in response to a question from a different school district, a staff member from Dallas County confirmed that an entity defying a health order could be subject to a legal action such as a temporary restraining order.
It has been publicly stated that Dallas County Judge Jenkins threatened RISD with legal action during the call. He did no such thing. I did not perceive that RISD was being threatened in any way, and appreciated the clarification that the county order remains in effect for all our in-person programs.
We are aware of the letter from the attorney general that stated local government entities are not required to follow county health orders. If RISD chose to disregard the order, that decision could result in a legal dispute with our local public health authority. I know that different parents, staff, students and community members have different opinions about what people should and should not be doing during the pandemic, and I respect everyone’s opinion on a topic that impacts all of us in the community. From my standpoint, the Dallas County Health Department and Dr. Huang have been an invaluable and responsive resource for RISD since the pandemic began on a variety of fronts, providing expertise and guidance on many of our decisions since February. I do not believe that a political battle on social media or legal dispute with our local public health authority is appropriate or wise in the middle of a pandemic. Instead, we will continue to comply with the order while working together toward a safe solution for our kids and staff.
I want our kids to be able to prepare for our fall seasons within the structured and supervised safety of our conditioning and skills programs, rather than on their own in an unregulated and unmonitored way. We are continuing to work collaboratively with Dallas County to request that our regulated and monitored programs like strength and conditioning can resume under the order, and I am optimistic that the county understands our concerns and will consider our request appropriately.
Thank you for your feedback and support of our students and coaches, and know that we are working daily to make the best decisions we can in this uncertain time.
Jeannie Stone, Ed.D