The Amherst Regional Schools Committees convened in a joint meeting last Wednesday, September 2nd, to discuss a variety of issues including the potential to hold fall sports. The meeting was initially met with a wave of public comments, primarily from students’ parents, requesting that the fall sports seasons be permitted.
Common themes among the public comment letters included the importance of having an outdoor social outlet while learning remotely, and a semblance of normalcy after months of isolation. Some pointed out that recreational sports have been occurring anyways, and that having school teams creates a more organized, safe, and inclusive alternative.
Amherst Regional High School athletic director Victoria Stewart presented a simplified presentation of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Assocation’s (MIAA) recent classification of four potential levels of play, ranging from individual training to larger competitions. Fall sports have also been categorized as low, medium, or high-risk, which affects which level of play they would be allowed to participate in. Low-risk sports are cross country and golf, medium-risk sports are field hockey, soccer, and volleyball, and the only high-risk sport is football.
Because of its high-risk classification, football has been postponed to a “floating season” that will occur starting in February. This decision is motivated by the anticipation of lower COVID-19 rates, vaccinations, or better testing by that time.
“The floating season happens right in between winter and spring, and right now we just have football there,” said Stewart. “However, if we choose not to have certain sports in the fall for any reason, we would move these sports to the floating season.”
Several School Committee members expressed concerns regarding the classification of volleyball as medium-risk, despite it taking place indoors. Member Peter Demling noted that in the MIAA guidelines, volleyball “sticks out like a sore thumb”. Superintendent Michael Morris also added that the ventilation systems in the gym and locker room areas were not tested, compared to other areas of the school.
Stewart addressed the pros and cons of holding fall sports seasons, noting the importance of student athletes’ physical, mental, social, and emotional health. She also addressed the value in having an outdoor outlet during a semester that will be primarily online.
One of the primary concerns, however, is transportation inequities. “There’s no way around it, that we’re not going to be running buses in the early afternoon, and the very late afternoon, before and after practices and games,” said Demling. “Kids are going to have to have their own transportation so this is going to exclude families and students that cannot find their own transportation.”
The potential spread of COVID-19 is the primary worry. “Not just concerned about the student athletes and the coaches, but also who the student athletes and coaches go home to every day. We just have to keep that in mind.” said Stewart.
Members also added their discomfort around allowing fall sports to begin before allowing high needs students to begin their in-person learning. “Having a certain subset of our students, our high needs students who we know can’t access remote learning, unable to access in-person learning for those first two weeks of school, it’s very hard. It’s a hard juxtaposition for me to hold.” said Demling.
Some members felt as though it may be beneficial to actually expand sports participation so that more students can reap the benefits of playing. “It is a sort of oddity when you look at it and you say, well, you’re not having anybody in the school but you’re having sports, but I really do feel like there’s going to be so much benefit to having the students playing sports that we really should consider.” said member Bethany Seeger.
Member Kerry Spitzer pointed out that students who have non-athletic extracurricular outlets should not be left out of the conversation, for the same mental health reasons. “I guess if we make a vote on this one, I just wanna make sure we don’t forget all the kids [whose] reason to get excited to go to school is an after school club that doesn’t involve athletics. And some kids are just not able to participate in sports for physical reasons that I think we all need to be aware of too.” she said.
Part of the decision making process is dependent on what neighboring districts are deciding, Morris pointed out. If competitions are a possibility, then various sports need to take place in the same season. “It’s a little bit of a dance right now.” said Morris.
The committee will not vote until their upcoming meeting on September 8.
Public comments can be sent to the school committee via their email email@example.com with the subject line “Public Comment”.