Carlson: Here's the story behind Millwood High School pulling teams amid COVID 'super-spreader' worries
Cecilia Robinson-Woods walked into the gym at Community Christian School and immediately saw there was a problem.
There were lots of fans in the stands and very few masks.
As the superintendent of Millwood Public Schools headed toward the visitor’s section where parents from her school were seated, they started waving her over. They knew there was a problem, too — COVID numbers continue at alarming and unprecedented levels in Oklahoma, and indoor events where masks aren’t worn and social distance isn’t kept are not advised — and they wanted her to figure out what was going on Friday night.
“I didn’t even sit down good,” Robinson-Woods said with a chuckle.
What happened over the next hour or so would lead to a first in the state during this pandemic. Robinson-Woods pulled Millwood’s basketball teams off the court because of health and safety concerns.
She wrote on Facebook that night that Millwood would subject neither kids nor families to “a super-spreader event just to compete.”
The reaction to her decision was widely hailed. People both inside and outside the Millwood community commended her for her leadership, though there were a few who wondered why Millwood was there in the first place or why there was a problem at all. But Robinson-Woods didn’t make the decision to please anyone — she made it to keep Millwood people safe.
Yes, Robinson-Woods knows playing sports at all during the pandemic is a risk.
“I don’t apologize for allowing them to compete,” she said, adding that extracurriculars are a choice that families make. “But since I allowed them, obviously, it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s as safe as possible.”
She didn’t believe her athletes or parents were safe Friday night, and this, in her words, is what happened.
She arrived at Community Christian during the first quarter of the girls game, and after seeing the situation, she called Millwood athletic director Shannon Hayes. He would’ve normally been there, but a previous commitment had him running late.
Robinson-Woods said Hayes reached out to Community Christian in the days before the games to make sure Millwood knew what COVID protocols were in place. Such communication has become standard operating procedure during the pandemic. If Millwood finds out a school is limiting capacity more than 50%, for example, it tells players’ families that they can only buy two tickets. Millwood allows them four tickets for home games.
But Hayes didn’t get a reply from the Norman-based private school about restrictions, Robinson-Woods said.
“I never received them,” Robinson-Woods said Hayes told her Friday night. “But I never interpreted that as, ‘We don’t have them.’”
Had Robinson-Woods known Community Christian wasn’t requiring masks, wasn’t enforcing social distancing and wasn’t limiting capacity, she said she would never have allowed the teams to get on the bus and go to Norman.
When Robinson-Woods first arrived in the gym, she said she tried to troubleshoot with the Millwood parents who were already there. Even though the home side of the gym was nearly full, they had a section to themselves on the visitor’s side and an empty section between them and Community Christian’s pep band.
Robinson-Woods estimated there were “30 or 40 kids in their band blowing spit.”
“This is crazy,” some of the Millwood fans told Robinson-Woods.
Even though she agreed, she told them, “But it’s on their side. It’s more than six feet. We have masks on. We’re good. We’ll just make sure we stay away from their band.”
But as the game continued, more Community Christian fans arrived and started sitting on the visitor’s side. Few masks. Little distancing.
Robinson-Woods thought about talking directly to those fans, but she didn’t want to cause an incident in the gym. Instead, she decided to find an administrator from Community Christian and try to figure out a solution.
She eventually found the principal.
“I understand that you guys don’t have a mask mandate, and that’s fine,” Robinson-Woods remembers telling the principal. “But my concern is, you are already above 50% capacity. It’s halftime of the girls games, most of my crowd comes to the boys game, and so I still have people en route, so your gym’s gonna fill up pretty quickly.”
Robinson-Woods remembers the principal saying, “We don’t follow those rules.”
“If you could just keep your fans on your side, that way my families can feel safe and spread out, then I think we’ll be OK.”
“I told you, we don’t follow those rules. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
“Now, you realize when I leave, I’m gonna have to tell people why I’m leaving.”
“Tell whoever you want.”
By the time Robinson-Woods had finished the conversation, the girls game had gone to halftime. She went to the Millwood locker room and found girls coach Dava Albert as concerned about the crowd in the stands as the game on the court.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” Robinson-Woods told her. “You’re not going back out there.”
“We can go home?” Albert asked.
Millwood boys coach Michael Jeffries expressed similar gratitude.
“Thank goodness,” Robinson-Woods remembers him telling her. “This is crazy.”
Robinson-Woods said Community Christian’s athletic director asked to talk with her before Millwood left.
“I already spoke to your principal,” she told him, “and she told me she wouldn’t accommodate us.”
Robinson-Woods said he told her, “But she didn’t tell me that you guys were leaving.”
“I don’t know if she understood that if I didn’t feel safe, I wasn’t leaving my kids here,” Robinson-Woods told the athletic director. “She probably was thinking I was leaving, and I’m like, ‘No, no, if I’m not safe here, my kids are not safe here.’ We’re out of here.”
Community Christian’s athletic director expressed concern over how Millwood leaving would be handled by the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. Would it be a no-contest? Would it be a forfeit?
Robinson-Woods let him know she had already contacted OSSAA executive director David Jackson. She is a member of the OSSAA board of directors, and after she got the OK to pull the teams from Ricky T.L. Hunt Sr., the president of the Millwood School Board, she contacted Jackson to let him know that Millwood would be leaving Community Christian.
“I don’t care if we get a forfeit,” she said. “I could care less about that.”
Robinson-Woods wanted to make it clear Community Christian isn’t the only place Millwood has gone for games where there were few masks and big crowds. She witnessed that during football games at Kellyville and Jones, for example, but because the visiting fans sat apart from the home fans and because the games were outside, she felt the risk for Millwood families could be mitigated.
She didn’t feel that way Friday night.
That’s why Millwood went home.
That’s called leadership.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.