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Wind River Reservation COVID-19 protocols keep student-athletes in class and on the court

 Wyoming Indian Boys basketball team huddle up before heading out to face the Greybull Buffalo.
Taylar Stager
Wyoming Public Radio
Wyoming Indian Boys basketball team huddle up before heading out to face the Greybull Buffalo.

This is a home basketball game in Ethete in early February. Wyoming Indian Chiefs vs. the Greybull Buffalo. The announcer uses Arapaho words to call the game.

The stands are less full this year because of COVID-19 protocols, and masks are required inside the building.

Wyoming Indian senior Videl C'Bearing is the team's captain. He said that throughout the pandemic, basketball has kept him physically and mentally fit.

"You need physical activity to help you get your mind straight. And that's what I think about basketball - it's therapy. Like, when I'm mad or whatever, [my] first thought is 'Man I'm gonna go shoot around somewhere,'" he said.

C'Bearing's coach is Craig Ferris. He graduated from Wyoming Indian in 1995 and has been the coach here for the last 18 years.

Ferris said these last couple years of the pandemic have shown him how resilient his student-athletes are.

"I think the mask mandates in the school, school board and administration following the tribal health policies, it's an amazing policy. It's allowed us to actually complete a season without canceling any games," Ferris said. "And I know we've been short players here and there, but we've haven't had to cancel any games."

On the Wind River Reservation, masking and testing athletes is the norm in some of the schools, even as other schools in the state back away from COVID protocols. Ferris said that student-athletes at Wyoming Indian are tested every 10 days and a majority of them are vaccinated.

"I know we've heard of a couple of teams that canceled games through the weekend because they've had no real mask mandate but have positives in their school, and they've had to basically shut the whole team down," Ferris said.

When visiting teams come to play they are notified that the staff, team, and any spectators must wear masks or they will not be allowed in the gym.

And while the student-athletes are allowed to take the masks off while they play, the Wyoming Indian girls basketball team has consistently worn masks during their games the past two years.

Ron Laird is the commissioner for the Wyoming High School Activities Association. He said that schools are in charge of how they handle COVID.

"To my knowledge, they're the only ones that are still wearing them while they're competing," he said.

Laird also talked about how the pandemic has showcased how important school activities are to students and their communities. He added that keeping kids in school and participating in sports makes them better students.

"And it's everything from kids who participate have higher GPAs, they have lower absent rates, their self-esteem is much higher than those that don't," he said.

Other public health protocols on the Wind River Reservation besides masking are lowering building occupancy, requiring schools to provide virtual learning for students to stay home, as well as requiring anyone working with children on the Wind River to get vaccinated.

Wyoming Indian is keeping a 50 percent capacity for games, and St. Stephens, another school on the reservation, is closing down concessions for the season to keep people in masks. Matt Mortimore is the athletic director there.

"Because obviously, they just kind of sit there and eat one piece of popcorn per minute for the entire game," he said.

He says that he sees things getting back to normal eventually, but is happy to see schools on the Wind River Reservation continue to protect the community and keep students healthy enough to play.

"Kids are pretty resilient. They've made the adjustments pretty well. When a kid is quarantined, you know, it's never fun to miss a game or miss anything," Mortimore said.

C'Bearing said his coaches have inspired him.

"One of my dreams is to play college basketball. That's what I really want. Hopefully, I can go somewhere and play and just come back here and pretty much do what my coaches do," C'Bearing said.

His team has won the last 5 out of 6 games as of last week and the girls team is looking at their 4th State Championship in a row this year. Conference basketball tournaments will be held at the end of February in Riverton.

Copyright 2022 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Taylar Stagner