Worcester Public Schools Athletic Director David Shea hoped that the third attempt at school sports during the COVID-19 pandemic would be the charm following canceled winter and fall seasons.
Pending any major changes with the course of the pandemic, as case counts have been decreasing in Worcester, it looks like students will be able to start playing sports in a few weeks.
“I think it is important, as a matter of fact imperative, that everyone knows that both times that I have come to the school committee, they have given us the support to play sports but outside factors have determined that we had to shut it down,” Shea said during a special school committee meeting Thursday night. “The old adage is ‘the third time’s the charm.’”
With sports in limbo since last year because of increasing virus cases across the state, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Department of Secondary Education created guidelines for Fall II sports between the typical winter and spring sports seasons.
Worcester students have remained in remote learning this school year, and high numbers of COVID cases prevented the district from holding winter or fall sports despite support from the school committee. But now, practices and games are in sight.
Members of the school committee voted unanimously to approve boys and girls cross country and boys golf for Fall II, as well as to move boys and girls indoor track to the spring. The committee also passed a motion 6-1 to allow for football, field hockey, boys and girls soccer, girls volleyball, cheerleading, and unified basketball, with member Tracy O’Connell Novick voting no.
“I’m sympathetic to people who want to play sports. I am also sympathetic to people who want to have spring musicals,” Novick said. “We cant do these things because we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Fall II will run from Feb. 22 to April 25. The sports were approved with modifications because of the COVID-19 pandemic and there won’t be a MIAA sponsored post-season tournament for the Fall II season.
Safety was a concern of school committee members, several of whom stressed that the district and coaches need to remind students that protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing must continue outside of practices and games.
“I have heard from many parents, student athletes and coaches that they are eager to get back out onto the courts and to the fields. That they want to have an opportunity to be with their teammates and their coaches. And our coaches want to be able to be with student athletes,” said Shea, who also noted that making the season work was a daunting task.
Shea told committee members that coaches and students will be following guidelines from the MIAA, the EEA and from Rob Pezzella, the district’s director of school safety. For indoor sports like girls volleyball, fans will not be allowed to observe games, he said.
The district is looking to utilize outdoor space, and because New England weather is a challenge, the district “will have to be extremely creative until mother nature cooperates,” Shea said. Snow melts faster on turf fields, which will be used before grass fields. Taking weather conditions into account, there may also be practices in parking lots. Gyms will also be used.
Additionally, Shea said coaches are asked to have team discussions virtually.
“I think it’s important that we try,” said Mayor Joseph Petty, who chairs the committee. Though, Petty offered a warning: things could change based on virus trends.
Member Dianna Biancheria made a motion for a letter to go out to coaches, reminding them that they should have supplies of personal protective equipment, of which the district has an abundance. That motion passed unanimously.
Member Jack Foley said that problems can arise if safety is not adhered to outside of games, like when athletes are waiting for a ride.
“If the coaches can help us with this and make sure that message is given every practice, but all it takes is one mistake and the entire team is being punished by that mistake,” Foley said.
Students are responsible for getting themselves to practices and local games. Superintendent Maureen Binienda offered a reminder that the WRTA buses are currently free to ride.
Like metrics statewide, COVID cases have been trending downward. Worcester officials on Thursday afternoon announced the city had 550 new COVID-19 cases, a slight increase from 492 reported last week. The increase broke a streak of four consecutive weeks of declining case counts.
“We don’t think this is a reversal of the trend we’ve been seeing,” City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. said.
Worcester students are still learning remotely. However, a return to classrooms appears to be in sight. The committee last week voted to have high needs students start hybrid learning on March 15 and all other students on March 29. However, COVID trends could still impact those dates.