ELKHART — Amongst the crowd of protestors outside the Elkhart County Health Department building Friday was a sea of green football jerseys.
Nearly 20 members of the Northridge football team were part of the crowd protesting the news that all Elkhart County schools will be going virtual-only through Sept. 28. Northridge, Concord, Jimtown and NorthWood had suspended athletic activities for the time being as well, leaving doubt over if a fall sports season will happen in the county.
“Sports and school mean a lot to me, especially just the brotherhood,” said Northridge senior Ibrahim Khaoucha, referencing to his teammates. “These are my brothers.”
The protests went from noon to approximately 1:15 p.m. Around 4 p.m., Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz announced all extracurricular activities, including athletics, “that cannot achieve and maintain social distancing of at least six feet during the meeting, activity, or event” are suspended until Aug. 24. In-person school would be able to happen, though, beginning Monday.
REACTIONS FROM PROTEST
Every Elkhart County school was represented at the protest Friday, with the largest athlete contingencies coming from Northridge, Concord and NorthWood. Most of the Northridge boys soccer, Concord girls soccer and NorthWood girls soccer teams were on hand.
“It just shows that a lot of people care about this school in general and their kids,” Khaoucha said. “I’m just hoping to have a senior year.”
Khaoucha said his team was told the news before practice Thursday by Raider head coach Tom Wogomon. All Northridge practices Thursday afternoon were canceled, and an official announcement was made by the Middlebury Community Schools on Thursday night.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said Khaoucha on his reaction when he heard the news. “It was like a dream — not a good dream at all. A bad dream.”
At least two coaches attended the protests: NorthWood boys soccer coach Brad Duerksen and Fairfield football coach Matt Thacker. At the time of the protest, Thacker wanted to be there to show his support for all athletes in the county.
“It’s about all of our kids. It’s about Concord kids, Northridge kids, Fairfield kids, Jimtown kids, NorthWood kids,” Thacker said. “You’ve got to fight for them. We should be in school and we should have extracurriculars. There’s really no rhyme or reason to not.”
Thacker said he wasn’t surprised when he first heard Thursday night’s announcement, but he was disappointed.
“If you’re going to make a decision like that, you’d think there’d be a little more planning; last Sunday would’ve made more sense,” Thacker said.
Goshen resident Nancy Demarco, 71, was at the protest holding a “My grandkids need sports!” poster. She has two grandchildren, including a granddaughter, Macie Swinheart, who’s a sophomore volleyball player at Concord. Her fall season was in jeopardy because of Thursday night’s news.
“She was very, very upset; very emotional,” said Demarco of Swinheart’s reaction. “She reached out to the superintendent (Dan Funston) and made her wishes known. … her brother, he’s a baseball player and he had his whole baseball season canceled last year. He’s going to be a senior and he doesn’t want that to happen to him again.”
Demarco was impressed by the crowd, as roughly 700 people showed up for the event. Face masks were required to be worn, with the majority of the people there following that rule.
“I think this is good because we followed the rules, we went along with all the guidelines and we just need to see an end to this,” Demarco said. “We can wear a mask, do our hand sanitizer, do our physical distancing and we need to get along with life, especially for our kids. For me, I’m OK with staying home. But the kids need that social interaction; that’s part of growing up.”