Controversy continues to swirl as School Com backs superintendent
By a 4-1 vote earlier this week, the School Committee upheld School Superintendent Judith Kuehn’s earlier recommendation to cancel winter sports due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
“Hull has been in the red [high-risk zone] for the past two weeks, with 66 new cases between December 14 and 28,” Kuehn said. “My decision was based on education being our first priority, and adding two high-risk sports [basketball and hockey] would increase opportunities for … further spread of the virus.”
Kuehn first made this recommendation, which was based on guidance from the school nurses and the Hull Board of Health as well as conversations with fellow school administrators and athletic director Scott Paine, at the committee’s Dec. 14 remote meeting, with nearly 100 participants on the call.
At that time, several students, parents, and others expressed strong objections to a cancellation. Those comments were followed by a decision to delay the vote until this week, with no sports practices in the meantime.
Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Fleming voted against the motion upholding Kuehn’s recommendation at the committee’s meeting this Monday. “I think we can do [winter sports] safely, as other towns are doing, so why not give it a shot?” she said. “The communities that do have winter sports seem happy and optimistic and are giving their student athletes an opportunity that is not being offered to Hull High School students.”
Committee members Ernest Minelli, Stephanie Peters, David Twombly, and Lucas Patenaude supported Kuehn’s recommendation.
Assistant School Superintendent David DeGennaro also backed Kuehn. “The superintendent is trying to keep the Hull school district safe. She feels it’s important to offer in-person learning to as many students as possible and doesn’t want to jeopardize that,” he said.
Fleming said she realized that the decision on whether to cancel winter sports was “a lot bigger” than she first thought, “with a much greater impact. I also thought that more towns would [cancel winter sports].”
She expressed concerns, as did some parents during this week’s remote call, about the number of students who are suffering from boredom, anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation during the pandemic and the restrictions it has imposed on them, including student athletes who would be unable to participate in the usual winter sports.
Plans are in the works, with social distancing and face mask requirements in place, to offer intramurals and opportunities to engage with fellow student athletes and coaches, according to athletic director Paine, but some parents said that is not enough.
Rob Johnson, with a student athlete son, said that “with the incredible safeguards” in place for winter sports, “we should give it a try. … I know you feel that you have to do something, but you’re just hurting, not helping, [student athletes] who are playing by the rules [already]. Their parents want their kids to play sports, too.”
Kuehn expressed appreciation for the committee’s support, acknowledging that the cancellation was a difficult decision to make and that she realized that many students and parents would not be happy if winter sports were called off.
Nonetheless, “there’s a lot of hope with 2021 coming,” she said. “We’ve done a good job together” in keeping the public schools open for full in-person elementary learning and the hybrid model, a combination of remote and in-person, at the secondary level under stringent health and safety protocols. “I know we can keep moving forward in doing good things on behalf of our students.”
A major goal of school administrators is to expand in-person learning at the middle and high schools because many students are struggling with remote learning.
“Progress reports for Term 2 show an uptick in D’s and F’s like we’ve never seen before,” Hull High School Principal Nicole Nosek said. “We need to get more kids back to in-person learning, and the more the better. I worry about the number of remote days increasing if more kids, due to exposure to COVID-19, are required to quarantine or end up testing positive or are considered to be a close contact.”
Fleming said she was under the impression that it is not school events or athletics that lead to COVID-19 transmission but rather “unmonitored social gatherings where kids are not wearing face masks.”
Town Manager Philip Lemnios joined the call, noting that while he does not usually attend School Committee meetings, he felt compelled to do so that night.
During a recent conference call with town department heads, school officials, and others to address issues related to the pandemic, Lemnios was told about disparaging comments made to the school superintendent and Board of Health officials about their COVID-19-related decisions.
In supporting Kuehn’s recommendation, Leminos said that everyone on these regular calls shares a common goal: “to navigate through this pandemic and to safeguard as many people as possible.”
There is no question, he said, that Hull “along with other communities, has trended into the red zone, and while it’s lamentable that winter sports can’t continue in the way many would like, [Kuehn’s] recommendation is a tool to help prevent further infections in the community and in the schools.”
Minelli said he considered Kuehn’s recommendation to be a “proactive” step. “We have to keep our in-person model in place, which is our primary concern. We want to continue to be successful.”
Hull resident Gregory Griffin asked whether the many other communities that have not cancelled winter sports are either not receiving, or are ignoring, the advice of their health professionals.
“Some local health boards’ advice is not being taken, while in other communities, they are not involved,” Paine said.
Middle School nurse Sharon Striglio noted the high number of communities with active winter sports programs that would be competing with Hull that are also now in the red zone.
Even if Hull athletes participated only in away games, she said, “we would still be exposing our students to these red communities, which would not be any safer than not playing any games in Hull because there could be more opportunity for COVID-19 transmission on the buses transporting them to these other communities,” among other considerations.
School Committee member David Twombly said that while some individuals claim there is little or no virus transmission in the schools, “we’re not testing in these buildings, so we don’t know.”
On a somewhat optimistic note, he pointed out that the decision to cancel affects only winter sports, at least at this time. “There would be less chance of transmission with outdoor sports [this spring],” he said.
Patenaude emphasized, as did Peters, that the decision “was not made in a vacuum.” He noted that some School Committee members have student athletes in their families or have played HHS sports themselves. “Everyone is making sacrifices right now,” he said, “and this would be one for the greater good of the school community.”