School Com punts, delays final decision
School Superintendent Judith Kuehn’s decision to cancel winter sports, announced at Monday’s remote School Committee meeting, did not play well with several vocal opponents who were in attendance for a prolonged discussion of the plan.
By a unanimous vote, following a 2½-hour conversation among Kuehn, School Committee members, athletic director Scott Paine, school nurses, students, and parents, a final decision on the proposed cancellation was put off until the committee’s Dec. 28 meeting.
There will be no basketball or hockey practice sessions in the meantime.
“We’re putting this on hold for two weeks,” School Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Fleming said.
The discussion went back and forth, with committee members weighing all sides of the issue. They had difficulty deciding how best to proceed, even considering but ultimately rejecting a middle ground where practices could be held this month to gauge how they went prior to the late-December meeting.
The initial decision to cancel winter sports was not an easy one, Kuehn told the School Committee at the beginning of the discussion. She explained that it was made based on pandemic-related information and guidance from the school nurses and the Board of Health. The Hull High School administration also agreed that winter sports should be cancelled.
“We realized that sports are important to student athletes and their families and that they would be disappointed with a decision to cancel them during the winter,” Kuehn said. “However, our top priority is keeping our schools open while maintaining the health and safety of the students and staff. With the COVID-19 surge across the country, I believe that [holding sports events] could jeopardize that.”
director Paine earlier came up with a socially distanced proposal for intramural basketball, with health and safety protocols in place, to help bring student athletes together at this time in the event winter sports were cancelled. But he conceded that, on the advice of the town’s medical professionals, he “didn’t feel comfortable” about putting such a program into place. “I could never put anyone in harm’s way,” he said.
Students got wind of the decision last Friday, before it was announced at the School Committee meeting, and decided to take action. By Monday evening, senior class president and student athlete Ben Olivieri had collected nearly 600 signatures on an online petition in an attempt to convince school administrators to reverse the decision.
Several parents and students strongly opposed to cancelling winter sports spoke out at the meeting.
“This past fall, the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams played successful seasons without one single COVID scare,” Ben said. “I and other ice hockey team members played [at private sports clubs] out of town and were able to enter the school the next day, again without one COVID scare. We’ve been going outside of Hull to compete, and we will continue to do so.”
Hull Public Schools officials “can’t control club sports,” Kuehn said, “but while fall sports were played outside, winter sports are played indoors, which is very risky.”
Parent Jen Olivieri offered this suggestion: “Why not let the [basketball and hockey] teams practice now, and if we have COVID cases come January [when the season officially starts], we’ll stop. … We need to give these kids a chance.”
Chris Olivieri, acknowledging “this is not an easy situation,” expressed concern that if winter sports are cancelled this season, “seniors will never get to do this again [play winter sports for Hull High School].”
Former Hull High School athlete Lauren Anastos also weighed in. “These kids should have an opportunity to have a [winter] season. Otherwise, they will likely go out on Friday nights not wearing face masks, whereas if they are playing sports instead, they will be wearing masks. Sports are an important part of their high school experience.”
Kuehn responded that, while school officials “want to give our kids hope, we are continuing to follow the direction of medical professionals as we have all along. We need to limit [potential] exposure to COVID-19 to protect all of our students and staff. Education is our first priority.”
A couple of parents noted that most surrounding communities are moving forward with their winter sports seasons. However, Kuehn noted, “A lot of them are [likely] waiting for the MIAA [Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association] to [potentially] shut the winter sports season down, and it takes a lot of courage to make this decision on our own in consideration of all our students, not just those who are playing winter sports.”
School Committee member Stephanie Peters called the possible cancellation of winter sports “a very hot topic; this is the third rail. I have three student athletes, and I’m not taking this decision lightly. We’re literally in the middle of a pandemic.”
If the decision is made Dec. 28 to allow winter sports to be played, Kuehn wondered what kind of message that would send to the school nurses and Board of Health, who have recommended cancelling the 2020-2021 season.
Chairwoman Fleming said she did not foresee that as an issue. “I would hope we would continue our collaborative partnership moving forward,” she said. “We wouldn’t be discounting what the Board of Health said, but we would be in a position [at the Dec. 28 meeting] to make a decision based on what the MIAA has said.”
School Committee member David Twombly admitted that “this is probably the toughest decision I’ll have to make during my 10 years on the committee.”
He went on to say: “We didn’t cause this virus; it kind of fell into our laps, and we don’t control it. We are not experts, and if medical professionals are saying playing winter sports isn’t safe, then we should follow their guidance.”
The focus, School Committee member Lucas Patenaude said, should remain on providing as much in-person learning as possible. “This pandemic has called on all of us to make incredible sacrifices and to look beyond our own wants and needs.”
Fleming talked about the socioemotional toll the pandemic and associated feelings of isolation can take on students. “There’s also an equity issue,” she said. “Some students have [the resources] to play club sports, while that’s not the case for others. For those students, Hull sports is their one option. Missing an entire season could have a detrimental effect.”
Committee member Ernest Minelli likened delaying the decision to “offering an olive branch to the community. There’s, understandably, so much passion about this issue.”
At the same time, he said, “I’m inclined to trust the judgment of Judy Kuehn, the Board of Health, and the athletic director.”
While agreeing to delay the decision date, Twombly was doubtful that anything much would change before then, with school nurses and the health board uncomfortable about proceeding with winter sports to begin with. “I don’t anticipate any of these [COVID] numbers changing in our favor,” he said.
Twombly’s remarks followed a report by one of the school nurses that the number of coronavirus cases in Hull has increased from 105 on Nov. 12 to 151 this past week.