DMPS students, athletes march to Terrace Hill in protest of activities suspension
Tabitha Keith grabbed a megaphone and looked out at the crowd in the Roosevelt High School parking lot on Monday morning. She took a deep breath and spoke the words that everybody around her was feeling.
“We’re out here to say that this is unfair,” Keith, a senior volleyball player and band member at Roosevelt, said through the megaphone. “Other districts are allowed to play sports and participate in their extracurricular activities.
“Just because our district made a choice for our health, for the students and the staff here, that doesn’t mean we should get our seasons taken away from us.”
Keith and hundreds of students, athletes, coaches, parents and supporters marched from Roosevelt to the Governor’s Mansion at Terrace Hill in protest of the Iowa Department of Education’s decision to suspend all sports and activities for school districts who opt for 100% virtual instruction during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The march, planned and organized by students from Des Moines Public Schools (with guidance from various teachers and coaches), sought fairness for those participating in fall and winter activities.
“We just want to play,” Roosevelt quarterback Jamison Patton said.
In all, about 500 people walked the two miles. The march included students and supporters from all five DMPS high schools — East, Hoover, Lincoln, North and Roosevelt — as well as Ames, another district that voted to start the 2020-21 academic year with fully online instruction and is being forced to suspend all activities as a result.
“We’re taking all the precautions,” Ames senior swimmer Caroline Waite said. “We’re all being safe. It’s not fair. We just want to play and have fun.”
The Iowa City Community School District, which includes Iowa City High, Iowa City West and Iowa City Liberty, also voted for 100% virtual instruction and will pause all activities as well. Athletes from all three schools have been competing without fans in attendance and had their own protest last month.
They voiced their support virtually for their DMPS and Ames counterparts on Monday.
“We'll be supporting the cause in spirit while we are at practice, where we have been working safely and responsibly for the past 9 weeks,” the Iowa City West football program tweeted.
“Here’s to common sense and decency prevailing in the end over political pandering.”
DMPS, Ames and Iowa City are all set to begin classes Tuesday. The three districts combine to make up eight of the 40 teams in both Class 4A football and Class 5A volleyball; eight of the 48 teams in girls’ swimming, which is just one class; nine of the 48 Class 4A cross country teams; and nine of 54 Class 4A boys’ golf teams.
The beginnings of this protest date back to a mid-August announcement from the Iowa Department of Education, which said that “in-person activities and practices would need to be suspended” if school districts needed to transition to 100% online or remote learning.
Both the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union backed the Department of Education’s decision. Both groups informed DMPS last Thursday that all in-person sports and activities would be suspended starting Tuesday.
Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered schools to hold at least 50% of classes in-person for the ’20-21 school year, and that districts who refused would not receive credit for those days of instruction and school administrators could face licensure discipline. Many districts opted for hybrid models to meet that mandate.
Districts can apply for waivers to begin instruction online if the coronavirus positivity rate in their county hit 15% over a 14-day span. Ames and Iowa City were both granted that waiver and will start online for two weeks before reevaluating.
DMPS was denied that same waiver but still plans to begin the year fully online. On Aug. 25, the district sued Reynolds and the Department of Education. A judge plans to rule on a temporary injunction Tuesday that would allow DMPS to move all classes online while a lawsuit against Reynolds and the Department of Education proceeds.
“I am hopeful for a successful outcome to our legal challenge,” DMPS Superintendent Thomas Ahart said in a release.
“If the Court grants our request for an injunction, then DMPS is not out of compliance with any State guidelines about returning to school and therefore no credible reason exists to stop our students from resuming their participation in sports and activities.”
On Monday, the students and athletes added their voices to the mix.
“We want a chance to finish our seasons,” North senior Orlando Fuentes said. “We want a chance to play and compete like every other school. That’s it.”
They marched from Roosevelt to Terrace Hill — across the walking bridge to 44th Street, left on Harwood Drive, right on 42nd, then left on Grand. They all wore masks and carried signs and yelled various chants in unison.
I believe that we should play.
Let us play.
As they walked, cars honked in support. Some neighbors set up chairs in their front lawns and cheered. One lady stood on the balcony of her condo and rang a cowbell.
When they arrived at Terrace Hill, students took turns speaking to the crowd through the megaphone. They asked for the opportunity to play. Savion Coleman, a Roosevelt football player, pointed out that the baseball team successfully completed its season this summer without any coronavirus cases.
The group circled Terrace Hill and walked back toward Roosevelt. Much of the protestors dispersed along the way. Roosevelt football coach Mitchell Moore said his team had practice because they fully intend on playing North this Friday.
Keith walked back with members of Roosevelt’s cross country, volleyball and girls’ swimming teams, as well as football players and softball players and wrestlers and coaches from other schools across the district.
They took the bridge back to Roosevelt’s parking lot, all smiles and full of hope, even if they’re all uncertain about what comes next.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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