Football, cheerleading and track & field are a go

WESTFIELD – On Monday, Feb. 22, the School Committee reconsidered its decision to cancel Fall 2 sports, allowing football, cheerleading and track & field  March 1 through April 25.

The decision, not an easy one for several of the members, was based on letters and phone calls they received individually, along with half a dozen emails and phone calls at the meeting.

The emails were from parents and former players, who talked about the mental and physical health benefits of allowing students athletes to play. One was received from School Committee member Ramon Diaz, Jr., who could not attend the meeting, but said while he supported waiting a week on the decision, he would vote for the season to begin.

Westfield High School Coach Rob Parent, who called in during public participation, thanked the committee for reconsidering. He said he had gotten a lot of phone calls and emails from athletes asking what they did wrong. “They did nothing wrong,” Parent said. “Some students only participate in school because of sports. They need to get good grades to participate. Not allowing them to play affects more than on the field,” he added.

Parent said the School Committee gave them a chance in the fall when they held 15 practices with no COVID cases. “I’m asking you to give us a chance,” he said before the vote.

Also calling in was parent James Yesu. “There’s nothing that I hold more dear than the health and well-being of my two sons who are in the Westfield High School football program. If I felt there was any risk of them getting sick or hurt, I wouldn’t support them moving forward, but I do. I’m confident that the coaching staff can move the season forward safely,” he said.

Public Health Director Joseph Rouse was reluctant at first to give his opinion. He said the numbers of COVID cases are going down, and vaccines are going out.

He said everybody felt athletics could be done safely at the school, but they had cases in sports teams at the high schools. He said they were dealt with appropriately, and there had not been a lot of spread and transmission because of them. However, he said those cases involved a lot of contact tracing and quarantines. “Last go round, 60 letters went out,” he said, adding it’s a high risk activity, but not his decision.

Committee member Cindy Sullivan, who had voted at the last meeting to hold the season, said she appreciated all the emails and the phone calls. “I’m moving forward with supporting Fall 2 athletics; the numbers are the numbers. The data has not supported that it’s been spread in sports. There are athletes participating in other leagues and sporting events. The MIAA has made the decision that sports could go forward, and they moved Fall 2 to now,” Sullivan said.

“I don’t think Westfield should be one of the only teams that are not playing Fall 2 sports. I’m a yes, and I’m really going to urge my colleagues to vote yes. Let the parents make the decision whether they want their kids to play sports. I feel like the ramifications of not having sports at the end of all this will be greater than having it,” Sullivan added.

In response to a question, Athletic Director Ryan Dunphy said he was proposing approving Fall 2 athletics for cheerleading, football and track and field. He said while it’s technically the indoor season for track and field, the team would use the Roots facility for practice and hold some practices outdoors, and then hold two or three outdoor meetis at a location to be determined.

Dunphy said there are six football games scheduled, the first on March 19. He said the plan is to play away the first part of the season, with the hopes of getting in one or two home games at the end of the season. He said he would expect under 100 kids in Fall 2 in total; with 50 in football, 30 to 40 in winter track, and low cheerleading numbers.

Vice-Chair Tim O’Connor said he was still not convinced. “This has been a difficult process for me to go through for a lot of reasons. What we haven’t talked about is school, which is the larger issue. If you get students in close contact with one another, whether on the field or not, it is going to impact school. Our number one job is to create a safe environment for our students and teachers. With winter sports, there were more than two teams that needed to be quarantined. I’m wondering if going forward, do we want to continue that mistake,” O’Connor said.

Heather Sullivan said she had been making her decisions based on Rouse’s recommendations, which she believed was the right thing to do. She said she agreed with O’Connor that their number one concern should be the health of teachers and students.

Sullivan said she would vote to have the season. “When I see every single sports person say this is what saves them… I’m going to vote to just do it. And then I’m going to ask you – what are the consequences if we do come down with it. If these parents want to take a risk, but understand the consequences. Also remember that these are not the only kids affected. We have kids that come to school everyday and it’s the safest place they go,” she said.

Bo Sullivan agreed, and said he would support going forward, mainly because while winter sports were all indoors, the majority of Fall 2 will be outside. “I think that does make a difference. But, as Heather says, if we have a case, we have the right to shut this down. We are here for the safety of students and staff. If that is compromised at all, we will shut it down. I hope the athletic director, who’s done a great job on this, will keep a close eye,” he said.

O’Connor said it sounded like the vote would be a go. “I would say to Coach Parent; please do everything that you and your staff can do to create a safe environment, as well as Ryan (Dunphy). I think an easier vote is a yes vote. The number of student athletes we’re talking about makes me pause. It’s not going to be a vote that’s very popular, but football to me is the highest risk sport. The numbers concern me, if it’s that many students and we have to quarantine, it’s going to be hard to do. I want to wish everybody good luck and stay safe,” O’Connor said.

“When I say we have the right to shut you down, it doesn’t just mean if someone gets sick. If the rules aren’t followed, we have the right to shut you down,” Bo Sullivan added.

The vote passed 4 to 2, with O’Connor and Diane Mayhew voting no.

Following the meeting, Coach Rob Parent sent a letter to the football community, which was posted by a parent on Facebook. He thanked the players and parents who reached out to him and got active in the community. He also emphasized that in allowing them to play, the School Committee entrusted them with the responsibility to do what is right and safe, not just on the field but off the field.

“I believe we all know what we have to do to make sure we finish this season. Now let’s get it done!” wrote Parent.

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