Winter sports in Albemarle schools, as well as extracurriculars such as drama and band, can continue while all classes are online following a 6-1 vote by the county School Board.
Previously, the division didn’t allow athletics and extracurriculars during the first and second stages of the reopening plan. That would have meant a stop to those activities next week, when the division reverts back to all-virtual classes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
School Board members said they had received a lot of emails from concerned parents and students about how stopping the winter sports season would negatively affect them. Student-athletes in Albemarle have been practicing since Dec. 7, and games for the winter season begin Friday.
About 600 students are participating in winter sports and 95 are part of extracurriculars, from jazz band to military club.
Before voting, several board members said they were concerned about the mental health of students.
“I’ve had some pretty concerning emails from students who are expressing that it’s a mental health issue,” board member David Oberg said. “My gut tells me that we should try to figure out a way to let this happen, because I think for me, athletics was a big part of my high school and college career and if we can make it happen safely, I think we owe it to our high school kids to try.”
Oberg did add that he was concerned that the vote could send the message that academic programs are less important than athletics.
“I don’t believe that’s what any of us believe,” he said.
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas announced Wednesday that the division would switch back to Stage One classes for the next two weeks, starting Tuesday. During Thursday’s meeting, he provided the board with information about safety precautions in place for athletics but didn’t make a formal recommendation.
The division previously announced that no fans will be allowed at games during the winter season.
Haas said he couldn’t make a change to the status of athletics without the board’s approval.
Haas was supposed to make a recommendation Thursday about whether to expand in-person classes for the third quarter. Because of the switch back to Stage One, he said he wouldn’t make that recommendation right now.
The athletics discussion was not part of the agenda but was added before public comment, during which a number of students and parents weighed in on the issue.
“We are practicing all safety guidelines as set forth by the governor and the [Virginia High School League],” said Luca Tesoriere, a junior at Western Albemarle High School who created a petition urging the School Board to allow sports to continue. “We deserve the choice to be able to play.”
Several other student-athletes spoke during public comment Thursday in support of continuing the season.
Dan Bledsoe, a teacher at WAHS and coach of the swim team, said he understands the concern about the rising case numbers but he pointed to other athletic programs that have safely continued and the benefits of sports for students.
“The benefit of participating in the school-based sports program goes beyond the playing field, the court, or the pool,” he said. “It plays an integral role in the academic success of many of our students.”
About 60% of Virginia schools are participating in the winter sports season, according to Thursday’s presentation. Other area school divisions, including Charlottesville City Schools, have continued practicing and competing even when classes were all-online.
Thursday’s decision means that the status of athletics and extracurriculars won’t be contingent on which reopening stage the division is in. However, the vote only applies to the winter sports season.
“This is an opportunity for our students and staff to prove that it works,” Oberg said, not specifying how the season would be evaluated. “Frankly, if it doesn’t work, the spring sports won’t happen.”
Board member Judy Le was the only one to vote against the measure, though she said she appreciates the mental health component.
“For me, it’s hard to get my head around saying that our buildings are not safe for students who have insufficient internet access, or who have special needs, or our English language learners or who either identified as disengaged,” she said. “That our buildings are not safe for them, who we would have in Stage Two, but they’re safe enough for these activities where the respiration is higher.”