WESTFIELD – After two Westfield High School athletes tested positive for COVID-19 this week, the Westfield School Committee Feb. 11 voted against the start of “Fall II” sports.
Committee members agreed to reconsider its decision at the Feb. 22 meeting. One student is a member of the hockey team and another plays basketball. The cases also triggered nearly 50 letters to close contacts asking them to quarantine.
Public Health Director Joseph Rouse said the city had decided to stay on top of contact tracing, instead of letting that go to the state. “I felt it was important to keep our eyes on our own. We were informed of a couple of positive cases on the athletic teams of hockey and basketball, which prompted us to have to do contact tracing. As I understand, the whole team on both sides will be given quarantine orders,” he said.
Rouse said the city had never sent out 50 letters in one day. “It’s frustrating. We’re doing so well. We don’t need that to start creeping up for any reason whatsoever,” he said, referring to four weeks in a row of decreasing numbers in the city.
“Honestly, we can’t keep doing this,” Rouse continued. “It’s a strain on our department. We’re trying to get ready for vaccinations. The more of these incidents that we get, the more we have to investigate. We have to take a step back and let the virus issue resolve. We’re close to community spread of months ago, and on the precipice of the vaccine here in Westfield,” he said, adding, “If this is the common denominator, my recommendation is to stop now and wait until the spring.”
Athletic Director Ryan Dunphy said the plan now is to go through the end of February with the current season of winter sports, and then start the postponed “Fall II” sports season, which includes WHS football, cheerleading and track and field, on March 1 through April 25. The vote on the agenda at the meeting was approval to start the Fall 2 sports season on March 1.
Committee member Heather Sullivan said she had voted to go along with youth sports, and said if something happened, they knew the consequences. “It’s too big. I think we tried it. Fifty (contacts) is way too concerning,” she said.
Committee member Cindy Sullivan said she was having a hard time with the discussion. “There’s no proof that these even came from the kids playing sports. Yes, all those people could get COVID; but we’re reacting to something that just happened yesterday. I’m having a hard time that we’re going to shut down winter sports because of that,” she said.
Committee member Ramon Diaz said those 25 people in quarantine couldn’t go back to school. “In the case of sports, one person gets it, the whole team’s out. The whole team has to be quarantined, they cannot play.”
“You can’t oversimplify this. It doesn’t matter if these kids contracted it from sports, it’s a communal environment that’s going to spread,” Rouse said.
“I was concerned about the high risk sports more than anything a couple of weeks ago. Therein lies the challenge, all those that have gotten it are in high risk sports, and that’s Fall 2. We should be talking about getting the kids in school and keeping them there. I don’t necessarily want to shut down sports tonight, but it’s time to move on,” said School Committee vice chair Tim O’Connor.
Several committee members suggested taking the vote on “Fall II” sports, and revisiting it at the next scheduled meeting on Feb. 22. The motion to begin Fall 2 sports on March 1 failed 3-to-4, with Cindy Sullivan, Bo Sullivan and Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr. voting for it, and O’Connor, Diaz, Diane Mayhew and Heather Sullivan against. The committee agreed to review its decision on Feb. 22.
One local coach said keeping sports going helps students’ mental and emotional health.
“Sports provides some sort of normalcy in a time where these students are mostly at home, mostly secluded,” Westfield Bombers football head coach Rob Parent said after the meeting, pointing toward the negative effects of not allowing student-athletes to participate in competition. “If we deprive them of (sports), that can lead to depression, anxiety and feelings of seclusion.”
According to a published report in the Washington Post, a recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1-in-4 young adults had thoughts about killing themselves within a 30-day period late last year.
“There are untold side effects,” Parent said.
Parent said scientific data currently shows case numbers dropping at the local and national level, and that information should be taken into account by the School Board before conducting another vote regarding “Fall II.”
The School Committee agreed to let the current winter sports (hockey, basketball, skiing and swimming) finish its season by the end of February, leaving any decision-making on individual team play to Dunphy and Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski. No vote was on the agenda for winter sports.
Chris Putz contributed to this article