As it continues to strategize on ways to educate district children in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Warwick Valley School Board met again via livestreamed YouTube conference call at its regular monthly meeting on Feb. 4, letting the community know that district students would again be able to participate in team sports.
Schools Superintendent Dr. David Leach also told the board that he is working with his counterparts on the Consortium to investigate whether the New York State Board of Regents graduation requirements are still appropriate in “today’s changing world,” and what changes, if any, should be made.
Board President Sharon Davis also asked the attendees for a moment of silence in memory of National Guard pilot and WVHS graduate Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Prial, who perished along with two fellow Army National Guard pilots in a helicopter crash that occurred during a training mission on Jan. 20.
Regents exams ‘no longer make sense’
Leach’s discussions with his counterparts – teachers, principals and administrators – in neighboring school districts in Westchester and Rockland counties as well as those districts in Connecticut who are part of the Consortium, regarding the Regents’ “skeletal staff” and budget issues, among other concerns, led his contacts to conclude that requiring kids to pass Regents Exams “no longer make sense.”
Leach there are three reasons for this:
The exams themselves are no longer as respected as they once were - they are “seen as limited indicators of what our kids know” and can do;
They “no longer carry much weight” among college admissions departments; and
The information required to pass the exam is “disconnected from our goals,” especially with regard to the WV district’s attributes of their “portrait of a graduate.”
The Regents, Leach said, is “not the best assessment.”
He added that this year New York State applied for a waiver of the Regents exams from the U.S. Department of Education for 2021 – the second year in a row – as a requirement for graduation. Warwick Valley is interested, Leach said, in applying for a permanent waiver. He added that a future pilot study might initially eliminate the science and history Regents, eventually “decoupling” the English and Math exams.
Before any of these changes become reality, Leach said that he would seek input from members of the community.
He maintained that improved assessments would provide “better teaching and more enduring learning” that “would allow us to really open up the curriculum.”
‘High-risk’ sports given go-ahead for now
Athletic Director Gregory Sirico reported that, per Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement on Jan. 20, the State Department of Health has authorized the return of so-called “high-risk” sports such as basketball, wrestling, competitive cheer, football, lacrosse, volleyball and hockey.
Sirico said that the final decision to go ahead was deferred to county health authorities, who have divided up the athletic activities into the following three seasons:
The winter season, in progress since Jan. 19 and continuing until the end of February;
Fall 2, which runs from March 1 to April 18; and
Spring season, spanning April 19 through early June.
There are no championships or titles scheduled for this period, Sirico said.
Protocols already in place
He said the district has numerous protocols in place to keep everyone safe in the face of the pandemic. These measures include daily temperature scans, now using “more accurate” measurements in the building; “pod-based,” well-spaced groups of six for varsity cheer; no outside spectators at events; locker rooms used as changing rooms only and only one student at a time in the restroom.
The athletes will “follow all precautionary guidelines,” Sirico added.
Other requirements: all practices require masks, indoors and out, including wrestling; and parents must sign waivers for high-risk sport student athlete code of conduct and for COVID-19 sport participation.
Vernon, N.J., High School offered its field for the Wildcats to use for practice, Sirico said, as Vernon has already played its season.
“What does it look like in terms of other schools?” Leach asked.
“In (Orange County,)” Sirico replied, “a few schools have opted out of wrestling... (Maybe) 75 – 80 percent of schools will offer ‘high-risk’ sports.”
The Monroe-Woodbury School District will allow its student athletes to participate in high risk sports in its middle and high schools, but those teams will not compete against teams from other schools.
One board member offered an opposing view: “What I heard last night (At the New York State School Boards Association) ... to do high-risk sports in the midst of a pandemic is counterintuitive,” board member Dave Eaton said. Other parents, he added, expressed “anxiety, fear.”
Eaton expressed concern how the athletic department “can pull this off” without kids congregating.
He was apprehensive about resuming school sports “until we can get a hold of this pandemic” and make sure it’s truly safe to play.
“I respect all opinions,” Sirico said, adding that, for some kids, this is “the other half of their education.” The fact that both New Jersey and Pennsylvania “have been able to do this” and that “there’s been zero transmission in sports, makes him feel better, provided “we do it the right way,” by doing temperature checks, mandating mask-wearing and maintaining proper distancing.
“If (I) as a father of three kids felt it wasn’t safe,” Sirico added, he would “direct (the students) to other opportunities.”
Board member Denise Ginley wondered about allaying parents’ anxiety, making sure that conditions are safe in order to get kids back into sports.
‘The fear of getting quarantined is potent’
New York State defines “high-risk” sports as those that are played closer together, Sirico said, which is why parents are being told to sign waivers. This is followed up with a phone call, where parents acknowledge their consent for their children to play.
“The fear,” Leach said, of the students “getting quarantined is potent,” as – presumably – no one wants to risk “jeopardizing the program for everyone.” There’s “a sense of camaraderie” among the kids, he continued, a common goal “to do their very best,” so the peer pressure is high to follow the rules.
The kids feel “they’re in this together,” Sirico said. The program will be successful if they follow the rules and have the opportunity to play.
While expressing his appreciation for the coach, Eaton countered, “the COVID virus doesn’t care ... (even) pros have been unable to do this without risk.” He empathized, but added that the virus “is going on all around us...(I’m) not sure now’s the time to do this.”
Parental concerns and concerns about parents
Sirico said, “I respect the virus... I had it, didn’t know I had it...couldn’t smell bleach,” but said he would “find the case studies of about 30,000 kids” who have apparently participated in sports without issue, and that he would provide that information to the BOE.
Eaton acknowledged that both the pandemic and its restrictions on both in-person learning and participation in sports has been difficult on students: “This is having an impact on everyone’s mental health,” but, he added, “(the kids) will be fine,” yet “who will they infect?”
Board member Bob Howe addressed another aspect of the issue: “I want to say something about the parents: There’s a huge section of the population who’ve been told this pandemic is no big deal,” so there’s a risk that there’s a number of kids coming out of homes who do not acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic.
Leach countered that for everyone who holds that attitude, “there is a consequence ... quarantine for 10 days to 14 days ... That’s enough of a consequence” for kids to decide that they’ll play by the rules.
“We see no correlations or trends...(We’re) not saying there’s no risk, but we’re doing precautionary quarantining.”
Sirico added, “Warwick recreational basketball is going on right now, with no help from the district,” which is OK, he believes. “No one can do it better than pros at the schools – coaches, trainers, doctors. Can someone catch it? Absolutely,” but he continued, sports “are going on right now,” and the athletic department is doing mitigation strategies.