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Fans again welcome for Pasco school sports, arts

The number of spectators will be limited, but it’s no longer zero.

The Pasco County school district’s ban on audiences for student athletic, music and theater events ended as quickly as it emerged.

Imposed just before Thanksgiving break, the rule — devised because of rising numbers of coronavirus cases throughout the county — was gone on the first day back from the weeklong vacation.

Citing a large and angry backlash from parents, and a desire to find a workable resolution, district officials announced late Monday that small groups of spectators would be allowed to attend games and performances, effective Tuesday.

“We had parents questioning, ‘What happens if my child gets injured and I’m not there?’” assistant superintendent for high schools Monica Ilse explained.

Related: No fans for prep sports in Pasco because of COVID-19 spike, district says

Others complained that they were driving their kids to their activities and would be required to sit outside rather than enjoy watching.

“They understand the need for caution,” Ilse said. “However, we did have parents that wanted to be part of their children’s (events). We wanted to find a reasonable accommodation.”

The new rules allow each participating student to have two supporters in the audience, which will be held to social distancing requirements. Spectators also will have to wear masks at all times during indoor activities, and while entering and leaving outdoor events.

Anyone who violates the rules will be asked to leave.

During a meeting Tuesday, School Board members praised the administration’s prompt attention to the criticism. Earlier in the fall, they had raised pointed questions about the fact that crowds were allowed to attend indoor sports competitions but not indoor arts performances.

It was hard enough to explain that stance to students and families, board member Megan Harding said. When the district then abruptly said no one would be allowed to watch anything, she continued, the news was confusing and surprising.

“I asked, couldn’t we try to limit it first,” Harding said, noting that a recent health department report indicated that coronavirus incidences in the schools were tiny.

Related: Indoor audiences can see Pasco school sports teams, but not arts groups

She called the latest decision a positive step for the community. She reminded the administration that it’s now incumbent upon leadership to ensure the rules are enforced evenly — something Harding and others said hasn’t always been the case.

“The most important thing is consistency among all the extracurricular activities,” said board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong, suggesting that would generate better support among fans.

When he announced the spectator ban, superintendent Kurt Browning said he hoped it would be short lived. He didn’t anticipate canceling it so soon, though.

After all, he noted, health department officials continue to tell him that Pasco’s positivity rate is “alarming,” and it doesn’t appear headed in the right direction.

“I still think it’s the right thing to do,” Browning said of the ban.

With such little support, though, he backed off, instead agreeing to a middle ground.

Also Tuesday, the School Board gave final approval to new elementary and middle school attendance zones in the Trinity area, to fill new Starkey Ranch K-8 School. About 600 students will be affected by the move, which takes effect in August 2021.

The board also approved the appointments of Kara Abbatello as principal of Gulf Trace Elementary and Andrea Altman as principal of Watergrass Elementary.