At its Feb. 1 meeting, the Board of Education held a thoughtful discussion about reinstating, to some extent, extracurricular activities and athletics for the remainder of the school year. The conversation comes on the heels of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that schools may now offer high-risk sports beginning this week pending approval from local health authorities. BH-BL is within both Saratoga and Schenectady County and those county Departments of Health approved the start of high-risk sports with the caveat that district’s have a plan that follows state health guidelines and that it is approved by their medical director.
Superintendent Patrick McGrath began the discussion by reminding the board that some school clubs, athletics, and fine arts activities have been occurring this year, albeit in a different way. For example, the high school’s fall play was pre-recorded and shared with the community via the district’s YouTube channel. Many virtual concerts and performances have been produced and shared with families and friends. High school and middle school extracurriculars such as yearbook, Student Government Organization (SGO), Art Club, Honor Societies, etc. are meeting virtually after school as well.
“Along with reviewing high-risk sports we will also evaluate other student offerings and look to bring these activities back at an increased capacity as well,” added McGrath. “We want to carefully start bringing back all student-centered activities to the extent that it is possible.”
Much like athletics, plans for other programs need to be put together that outline the health and safety measures the program will establish in order to ensure a safe environment for students and staff.
BH-BL Athletic Director Joe Scalise presented the board with a “Return to Play” plan that outlines precautions and safety guidelines for coaches and student athletes. Scalise said the plan reflects guidelines set forth by the Department of Health and includes guidance from the other area athletic directors and the district’s Medical Director Dr. Stephen Sipperly.
“When creating the plan we asked ourselves how we can provide a competitive experience for athletes in a safe manner,” says Scalise. “Our highest priority and guiding principle was to create a safe environment first, and go from there.”
Among the many safety measures, the plan states that masks are required at all times for both student athletes and coaches, spectators (at this time) will not be allowed, COVID consent forms must be completed, and the county’s seven-day rolling average infection rate needs to be less than 4 percent in order for students to compete. The “Return to Play” plan was reviewed extensively by school leaders and shared with Dr. Sipperly who was comfortable with and encouraged it, but advised against offering wrestling at this time. He suggested the district revisit wrestling as an option when the countywide infection rate is significantly lower.
“We know the risk for younger kids getting the virus is lower and we are keenly aware of being sure we are paying close attention to our students’ mental and physical health, but we also have to take into serious consideration the advice of our medical director,” says Scalise. “We will be holding off for the time being on offering wrestling but will continue to monitor area infection rates and look into options for offering the sport.”
The “Return to Play” plan applies to boys and girls basketball, cheerleading, and ice hockey. (Bowling and swimming were not considered high risk and therefore have been practicing and competing virtually.)
A few board members asked whether there was any concern about students adhering to the plan. Scalise reminded the board that many of the guidelines in the “Return to Play” plan were already in place for the fall athletic season.
“Our student athletes know what’s expected of them and they want the chance to participate in and perform their sport,” says Scalise. “They carefully followed guidelines in the fall season to great success. I have absolutely no doubt that they will follow the plan properly in these sports as well.”
Student Board Representative Michaela Choi expressed gratitude and strong support for the plan. She noted how excited students were to see some “normal” activities returning and asked if the district would consider allowing spectators to the games. She said that many student athletes feel it’s important to have support from family and peers.
“The focus at this point is getting teams off the ground and getting kids competing again,” says Scalise. “If the numbers go down, we will certainly revisit the guidelines about spectators but right now we have to focus on creating and maintaining a safe environment for our athletes.”
The district will continue to live streaming competitions, which is something that has been done throughout the year. “We realize it’s not the same, but nothing right now is the same,” adds Scalise.”
“These sports are a few of the only outlets some of our kids have to connect with peers, so we appreciate the work that has gone into the plan to get our students moving in that direction,” says Board Vice President Dave Versocki.
After more than an hour discussion, the board unanimously passed a resolution to return to athletics for high-risk winter sports.
“Athletics is one more step to carefully and cautiously getting the wheels and the engine turning again for our students,” adds McGrath. “And while there weren’t any guidelines from the Governor for music ensembles and drama clubs to get back up and running, we are working closely with our Fine Arts Department to find options for these activities, as well.”