School Committee approves Phase 1B; waits on football practices

WESTFIELD – At its Sept. 21 meeting, The School Committee voted to approve in-person learning for students in Phase 1B, but wait until the Oct. 5 meeting to approve the start of football practices, after hearing concerns from Public Health Director Joseph Rouse about a spike in cases among students ages 14 to 18 related to youth athletics.

Phase 1B is for students who are in sub-separate special education programs, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, Essential Life Skills, Developmental Learning Program, Transition Program and preschool to return to school in person every day starting on Sept. 28.

Before casting the unanimous vote, Westfield Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski asked Public Health Director Joseph Rouse to give an update on COVID-19.

“We’re starting to see a little uptick right now, nothing to be concerned about with your vote on 1B. I would let that go through,” Rouse said.

Rouse continued to say that the city is having some challenges with older kids getting sick. “We need to tread lightly going forward. Phase 1B is not hitting any of the demographics we’re worried about right now. When we get to the next level, we’ll have to start worrying about the ages of the cases we have right now,” he said.

Rouse said there is some concern about exposure in schools that are currently operating, which he said was expected. “We are ready to squash the cases that are currently out there. What does concern me is the ages of the cases we’re seeing right now. We are seeing ages from the range of 14 to 18 as being the majority of the confirmed cases that we’re seeing right now in our city. What we have to be concerned about is the commonality of that, and reasons for the exposure,” which he said seems to be from youth athletics, and which he only learned about Sept. 18.

“It’s at the point right now where we may want to look at youth sports if we want to get the students back to school,” Rouse said, adding, “Suffice it to say, right now, I’m in favor of 1B. I think that can be done safely, it’s not the age group with spikes, the older category is.”

Rouse said the spike was expected, but they have been a little surprised since school is not yet in session. “We have some time to recover from this. When I confirm with you in a month, I hope we won’t have to worry about that,” he said.

“Thank you for your participation. Is Westfield still in the green zone as of today,” asked School Committee member Cindy Sullivan.

“As of today. We are seeing a rapid rise in the cases. In the last week of August we were at our bottom with three active cases. Three weeks later, we now have 13 active cases – an uptick of 10 cases all in that age range I spoke of,” Rouse said, adding they all came from organized youth sports.

Rouse also said he has observed practices, and they are following the rules. “It’s not so much pointing the blame at how they’re doing it, but it is what it is. Might not even be the event itself, might be riding in the cars together, or congregating afterwards. I observed a soccer event at the Westfield High School being done perfectly.” He said all of the ongoing sports activities are permitted under the governor’s orders of COVID-19.

Later in the agenda, Westfield Athletic Supervisor Ryan Dunphy presented a proposal to start a five-week, two to three session a week football practice to run from Oct. 5 to Nov. 7, and have athletes sign up through a registration process. Dunphy said it would be practice only, with no helmets and no pads, with socially distanced activities and no contact.

Dunphy said since the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) voted late in the summer to remove the out-of-season coaching rule, it’s been a bit of a “wild, wild west” with no guidelines around practices.

“What I want to do is instead of allowing them to go on their own, I want to manage or oversee it,” he said. He also said that he intends to pay the coaches 25 percent of their contracts for practices, and 75 percent during the Fall II season.

Committee member Ramon Diaz Jr. asked if that was a good idea based on the report by Rouse earlier in the meeting.

Czaporowski said Rouse had previously approved the plan, and Dunphy said it would create a more safe environment that could be observed and managed.

“I would like to see where these numbers are going for the next three weeks before we approve this,” said committee member Bo Sullivan.

In response to School Committee concerns, Dunphy suggested he continue with the planning, registration and hiring of coaches to get it organized in advance, and hope for approval at the next meeting on Oct. 5.

School Committee Vice-chair Timothy O’Connor said that he would vote for it if in two weeks they reconvene and the cases are under control.

“As mayor, I follow Joe’s advice because I’m not a public health official. I would vote on what Joe says is okay. That’s my own personal position. What I’ve done as mayor is follow his advice,” said Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr.

The School Committee agreed to wait until Oct. 5 to approve the start of football practices, and to permit Dunphy to move forward with organizing the plan.

“Westfield Public Schools is not only prepared, but also eager to bring back our preschool students and a portion of our special education students in sub-separate programs for in-person learning.  I am also hopeful that despite a small uptick in positive COVOD-19 cases in our city, that we will be able to bring back more students in our upcoming phases in order to reach our full hybrid model potential by the end of October,” Czaporowski said following the meeting.

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