School Committee discusses reopening and sets Jan. 14 vote

WESTFIELD – During a discussion on the back to school plan and winter sports at the Jan. 4 Westfield School Committee meeting, Public Health Director Joseph Rouse and Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said it was a good decision to postpone the phased return of students until Jan. 19. The School Committee will convene a special meeting on Jan. 14 at 5 p.m. to vote on whether to continue with that plan.

“Today, we were informed about 14 additional positive COVID cases in students or staff in the last 10 days,” said Czaporowski, adding that the district has now had 87 staff and studentscases since the opening of school Sept. 14.

“Back in December, we had a little bit of a scare in the high school which prompted some thought and further analysis of what’s going on in the schools,” Rouse said.

Rouse said he asked the superintendent at that time to take a little break because they were starting to see a trend. “We used to go days at a time without seeing any student cases. Back in mid-December we were noticing an every day trend of cases. Not only that, but the daily caseload of students was starting to get higher and higher. It was logical at that point to take a little break,” Rouse said.

“I said let us try to control this rather than it controlling us,” Rouse added, saying they had the advantage of a break coming up, and projections of numbers going up after the holidays. He said he is just now seeing the spike in numbers from Christmas gatherings.

The number of cases in Westfield as a whole this week are higher than they’ve ever been. Rouse said if they had not gone ahead and been as cautious as they had, he would have made the recommendation on Monday to shut down in person learning.

However, Rouse said things could change quickly, and he is still hopeful that the schools will be able to return in hybrid phases on Jan. 19.

School Committee member Diane Mayhew then asked Rouse what were his recommendations about winter sports and tryouts, some of which are scheduled to start before Jan. 19.

“I’m going to be very blunt with that. I’m against it. When I’m talking about numbers and student populations, the list is from Westfield High School, Westfield High School, Westfield High School. The kids aren’t even in school and they’re still transmitting. The only way that can happen is from extra-curricular activities,” Rouse said.

“From a health perspective, I love sports and I think the kids need it, but I don’t think the kids need it right now. The reality of the world we live in right now is that youth sports are quite indulgent,” Rouse added.

Mayhew said parents have told her they are concerned about starting tryouts next week.

Committee member Cindy Sullivan said there are still students participating in travel sports and captain’s practices are happening. “I was in complete agreement with not going back until Jan. 19. My concern is maybe not starting Jan. 11, but if we take it off the table completely, kids will still be playing sports. I understand what the fears are, but in the time of COVID, if we take everything away from kids, they’ll find a way to get together, and it will be worse for us. This is a decision none of us want to be making. Sports is something kids value that’s good for them, and good for their mental health. I don’t think we should make a decision tonight about sports. I’m hoping we can get the kids back on Jan. 19,” Sullivan said.

Rouse said he totally agreed, and it was with a sad heart that he had to make the statement about youth sports, because he didn’t know what he would have done in high school without football and baseball. He said he was seeing complacency in society as a whole, and he needs more reassurance that these activities are going to be done responsibly.

“I have to tell you what I need to tell you from my professional opinion. The gauge I would use right now is where we’re at right now,” Rouse said.

“In the fall, we weren’t talking about the same numbers either. We have to make the decision on what’s in our control, what’s prevalent right now. I think it’s prudent if we’re not letting the kids back in the school, why would we have the kids back (for sports). If we’re back on Jan. 19, then why not wait,” said Committee member Ramon Diaz Jr.

Czaporowski said they have allowed tryouts with other districts, because the expectation or hope is that they would have sports. “If we don’t have tryouts, they wouldn’t be able to participate in winter sports at all. I’ve been assured by [Athletic Director Ryan] Dunphy that coaches are following the guidelines,” he said, adding that MIAA guidelines are quite stringent. “If we stop tryouts with other districts, those students will lose those opportunities. I try to operate on as many opportunities for students as possible, even in pandemic times,” he said.

Several school committee members agreed that tryouts should be allowed, but expressed alarm that there are captain’s practices going on. Czaporowski said these practices are being held outside of school hours and supervision, and they have no authority to stop them.

“Coaches know if there are captain’s practices. If we all know as adults that it’s going on, there has to be consequences for poor decisions. Let’s just nip this,” said Committee member Heather Sullivan.

“The parents need to hear loud and clear that they shouldn’t be doing it,” agreed Cindy Sullivan.

Czaporowski said he would invite Dunphy to the Jan. 14 meeting for the discussion. A motion was then made and voted to suspend winter sports until the School Committee meets again on Jan. 14, but to allow co-op agreements to move forward with tryouts, and allow tryouts as determined by the athletic director and cohorts to begin on Jan. 11.

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