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COVID-19 rules silence South Medford pep band

The mother of a South Medford High School senior is up in arms after district administrators nixed her daughter’s plan to organize an off-campus pep band performance before, during and after Friday’s football game against Crater, saying the district should not be allowed to tell its students “what they can do, where they can go, and who they can spend time with outside of school hours for a non-school function.”

Sheri Sutliff said her daughter Bethani, the school band’s drum major, decided about four weeks ago to try to get the band back together to support the football team should it be given the green light to play games. She texted and used Snapchat to coordinate with her bandmates, eventually securing 10 to 15 commitments to dust off their instruments and do just that.

“This is her senior year and we talked about making memories,” Sheri Sutliff said. “And I’m like, ‘What’s one of your best memories so far?’ And she said just spending time with friends and playing in the band. And I said, ‘well, there’s nothing that says you can’t do that on your own.’”

About a week before the Panthers’ season-opener Bethani Sutliff sent out a formal invitation that specified the date, time and place of the planned performance — they were to meet outside the Maslow Project building near the corner of Monroe Street and J Street, roughly a block north of Spiegelberg Stadium. The details were broadcast via text, Snapchat and Band, a popular community coordination mobile application.

Sutliff’s plans were scuttled Tuesday, when South Medford High band director Nathan Stokes relayed a message to her mom from the district via text: The band, he texted, is not allowed to perform, as per the county’s COVID-19 restrictions related to its high-risk classification.

Sheri Sutliff holds Stokes in high regard and said he was purposely left out of the loop during the planning process to avoid putting him in an awkward position.

Sutliff said her daughter, who plays the flute, accepted the news as well as could be expected.

“In all honestly she took it a whole lot better than I did,” Sheri Sutliff said Friday. “She said this was basically par for the course, that she kind of expected this because that’s what the whole last year has been — these possibilities and then getting shut down. So she kind of took it in stride.”

Sheri Sutliff responded to Stokes’ text by emailing superintendent Bret Champion, South Medford principal Donnie Frazier and vice principal Jeremy Hamasu on Tuesday night, expressing her view that the masked pep band is no more dangerous to public health than masked football players tackling each other, and that the gathering in question should not fall under the district’s purview. “I am disappointed that the school district would assume to have the right to tell their students what they can and cannot do during their free time as well as where they can and cannot go for social activities,” she wrote.

Hamasu called Sheri Sutliff to explain the district’s decision shortly thereafter. During the conversation, she asked what would happen if the band decided to test the policy and play anyway.

“I’m like, ‘What are the risks, what are the consequences, what are we risking if we do this anyway?’” she said. “And (Hamasu) said, ‘Well, the (administration) would have to come together and discus consequences as far as how they’re going to deal with it in the future. And then we also run the risk of being fined by the (Oregon School Activities Association), the (Oregon Department of Education), possibly even the (Oregon Health Authority) if we were to go over those capacity maximums and risk getting the football program shut down for the year.’”

According to guidance from the Oregon Health Authority, spectators — pep band members are counted among that group — are not allowed in the stands in counties that are classified as high or extreme risk (Jackson County currently falls into the high-risk category). Additionally, people who congregate outside a venue are considered fans.

Natalie Hurd, Medford School District’s communications coordinator, said the district’s hands are tied by the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and that there’s really no way around it.

“The OSAA put out some guidance late February around indoor and outdoor recreation and one of these that we know is really, really difficult for families and for us — because our hearts break for these students — is that we’re not allowed to have any spectators at our games currently,” Hurd said. “We are allowed, for football, to have 120 people total and that’s including the team, the officials, any game management crew, any media who are covering or live streaming the event, and that’s it.”

When pressed about whether that guidance applies to an event that’s off school property, Hurd said, “I know that the intent of the guidance is to limit gatherings for the health and safety of the people in our community. That is the intent around not allowing people to line up around the fence so I can’t speak to that. Public sidewalks are public sidewalks. It’s the fence line that now counts toward our venue capacity limit.”

The band is probably facing a dead end, said Sheri Sutliff. When her daughter found out that the football team’s season could be put in jeopardy if she pressed the issue, she decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

“As soon as I told my daughter that, she’s like, ‘That’s it, we’re done, we’re canceling it because I’m not risking somebody else’s opportunity,’” Sheri Sutliff said. “But I’m like, well, ‘what about her opportunity,’ which is what I’m fighting for. Hopefully we can at least get to one game before the year is out.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

South Medford football team practicing at Spiegelberg Stadium. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)