PURCELLVILLE, Va. — Parents of sideline cheerleaders are pushing for their children to be allowed back for football games after an executive order from Governor Ralph Northam classified cheer squads as spectators and meant they will be required to be ticketed in order to gather.
After being signed by Governor Northam, Executive Order 72 classifies anyone not participating in the sport being played as a spectator, which includes sideline cheerleaders and members of a marching band.
Under the order, capacity for outdoor sporting events is set at two tickets for every player.
With high school football slated to kick off later this month in Virginia, parents of sideline cheerleaders said they were upset at how the strict rules meant their children couldn't gather for games.
"It’s very frustrating because they work really hard," said Jennifer Ducharme, whose daughter is a freshman cheerleader at Loudoun Valley High School. "These kids have lost a lot. It takes away their self-worth and mentally it makes them feel like they’re not good enough.”
Ducharme's daughter, Kaylee, spoke to WUSA 9 on Friday and said the cheerleading squad was a tight-knit group that felt like a family.
Following the announcement that they may not be able to cheer at their school's football games this upcoming season, Kaylee said she especially felt bad for the seniors on the team.
"It’s their last year," she said. "They’re never going to be able to cheer on the sidelines for their school again.”
Kaylee said cheerleading requires the team to practice daily and often involves strenuous exercises and going over routines.
"We have to stretch every single day," she said. "We have to work on our jumps outside of practice. In practice, we have to memorize dances.”
For Ducharme, seeing her daughter so determined to do well made the non-athlete designation hurt more.
"My daughter comes home every day from cheering and she’s jumping in her room. She’s working on cheers," she said. "For them to not be called athletes is demeaning. It takes away their self-worth.”
After hearing about the executive order, Ducharme and other parents have called out the governor and asked him to designate the sideline cheerleaders as participants and athletes.
As of Friday evening, a petition on Change.org to show support for sideline cheerleaders in Virginia had gathered over 2,700 signatures.
Aside from the petition, Ducharme said she had personally reached out to Governor Northam's office many times.
"I’ve been calling for two or three weeks. I’ve left voicemails, I’ve sent him over 100 emails," the mother said. "I’m just trying to reach out to anybody I can get a little more attention.”
When asked for a statement from WUSA9, Governor Northam's office responded by describing the executive order and said attendance decisions could be made by schools.
"Health guidelines consider cheerleaders to be participants for the purposes of their own competitions. Any event attendee that is not participating in the sport being played is considered a spectator," a spokesperson wrote. "Schools may choose to limit cheerleader participation to encourage parent attendance, but that is a local decision."
After being contacted by WUSA on Friday, the Virginia High School League (VHSL) said it supported designating sideline cheerleaders and marching bands as participants and not as spectators. However, it noted the challenges with capacity limits during the pandemic.
"The VHSL is not ignoring or diminishing the importance cheerleaders immensely contribute to the unique atmosphere at a high school game," a statement read. "Unfortunately, high schools sports fall under recreational sports and our stadiums and gyms do not have the 250-spectator capacity limit granted to colleges and universities. As you can see, the order greatly restricts our schools' ability to admit fans, cheerleaders, etc. into their gyms and stadiums."
VHSL said it had spoken to the governor about the executive order, but a change could be unlikely.
"The VHSL continues on-going communications with the Governor’s office advocating for those limits to be less restrictive regarding capacity at high school events," the statement read. "While the Governor’s office has listened to our requests from the VHSL, community members, and school divisions, they said there would be no changes to the current Order, but they would continue to review our request later."
Moving forward, Ducharme said she would keep pushing to have sideline cheerleaders back at football games so her daughter could do what she loves.
"These kids have lost so much," she said. "Let’s not take away something else.”