Southwick Regional student athletes meet with superintendent to discuss fall sports

SOUTHWICK – Student athletes remain hopeful that fall sports will be reinstated at Southwick Regional School, however, Superintendent Jennifer Willard is not convinced it is safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Following a student protest Sept. 8 at the Southwick school campus, Willard invited a small group of team captains to meet with her, Athletic Director Dave Sanschagrin, School Committee Chairman Jeffrey Houle, SRS Principal Joseph Turmel and several parents. Willard said she listened to the students, whom she said are very passionate and made good points. But for Willard, the bottom line remains the same: Safety and equity for all students is her priority.

Student athletes from Southwick Regional School hold signs and chant Sept. 8, 2020 in protest of the decision to postpone sports. (MARC ST. ONGE/THE WESTFIELD NEWS)

Last week the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School Committee voted 5-2 in support of Willard’s recommendation to postpone the traditional fall season for all sports and adopt the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (MIAA) option of a “Fall II” sports season, which would take place starting in late February 2021.

Athletes and parents expressed their concerns even before the decision was made. Willard had indicated during an August meeting that she would likely recommend postponing the season. Families rallied and sent letters to the regional school committee which were read during the public comment portions of the Sept. 2 meeting.

“Sports are the only thing some of these kids have,” stated one letter. “We are willing to take the risk,” stated several letters.

Girls Varsity Soccer Coach Clarke Moore wrote that the students have done everything that was asked of them and they deserve a fall season. He said when the MIAA released a list of sports modifications for schools to have a fall season, they thought they were moving forward.

“Our children were seeing that their trust in decisions made in the spring were paying off and things were starting to get back to normal,” he wrote. “They knew it would be different.”

Moore stated that when Willard said she was leaning toward cancelling the fall season in favor of Fall II, the students’ sacrifices seemed to be for nothing.

“They had done everything asked of them, and it still didn’t seem to be enough,” he stated.

Willard said sports are a huge part of her life. She is a runner and avid sports fan, her children are athletes and she supports the Rams with pride. However, she said she had to approach her recommendation as a superintendent, not a mom.

Willard said she made the same decision when it came to school clubs and other extracurricular activities, including band and drama. A decision was made for CTEC students who go to a West Springfield campus for technical education to remotely participate in academics. There are nine districts sending students there, so to keep SRS as safe as possible, Willard said all CTEC students will do their academic learning remotely instead of possibly exposing students and staff in SRS to those nine other communities. She said she had to make a blanket decision because it was not fair to pick and choose, which is the same with sports.

Some parents of golfers wondered why they could not play golf, which has no contact with other players and the MIAA had almost no modifications to the sport. One mom said she and other parents offered to transport the team of six players to make it easier.

Willard said during her school committee presentation that in addition to health and safety, equity was a guiding principle in her decision.

“Equity does not mean equal,” she said. “It means giving everybody what they need at that time. One of the equity issues I have with sports is transportation.”

She said it is not about the cost of transportation, it’s about all students having the opportunity to get to practices and games on days they are not in school in-person.

“We have students who live in Tolland. We have students who live in Granville. We have students who live in Springfield. They’re not going to be in school every day. Not all students would have access to being at school for practices and games and I cannot provide transportation to all of these different communities,” Willard said.

“I need to make sure every decision I make is to ensure the safety of all staff and all students and to make sure that if we were providing sports it was an equitable situation for all children in our district, not just the children who had the ability to get a ride to school for practice.”

Willard said she knew her decision would be highly unpopular.

“I can understand where they are coming from,” Willard said. “I know the gravity of the decision I made. I’ll have a lot of very unhappy students.”

Willard said she cannot bend when it comes to the safety of the staff and students.

“I am always willing to listen and compromise, but I won’t compromise on health and safety,” she said.

Willard mentioned students playing for recreational programs and travel teams and said she knew that would be an alternative for some athletes. School Committee member Maria Seddon said this would expose students and staff.

Willard responded that she understands that, but her job is to ensure the safety of staff and students at school sanctioned activities.

Seddon also said that while Willard spoke about equity, SRS students are the only ones in the area not having a fall season.

“Other towns are playing and their school committees are saying go ahead,” Seddon said. “We will be the only ones saying no.”

Committee member Pamela Petschke said she was proud Southwick was taking what she called a “conservative stance.”

“We are a school district and our number one job is educating our kids, and that will be a challenge no matter what,” said Petschke.

Committee member Jonathan Schantz said he believes keeping kids after school in sports would be better than the alternative.

“They’re not going to go home and lock themselves in their room until they go back to school,” he said. “They’re going to find things to do. It’s almost safer playing a sport.”

The committee supported Willard’s recommendation 5-2 with committee members Schantz and Ryan Korobkov voting no.

Willard said she was proud of the athletes for standing up for something they are passionate about, but she did not believe they understood why she made the decision to put off sports.

“I love that our kids used their voices and I want them to use their voices in a productive way,” said Willard.

During the private discussion Wednesday, Willard said students kept bringing up the fact that surrounding communities are playing fall sports. Willard said the difference is that SRS is following a hybrid model and those schools are fully remote, at least for the time being.

“I can’t let kids play sports in other communities and then come back into our buildings,” she said.

During the discussion, it was brought up that the only way there was a possibility of a fall sports season would be if all athletes were fully remote learners so that they would not be going to other communities then returning to school and potentially exposing classmates and staff. Willard said the team captains Wednesday said they would make phone calls to gauge how many students would opt for fully remote learning to encourage a traditional fall sports season.

“They are collecting data to present to Mr. Turmel and if there is enough, they will present that to the school committee,” Willard said.

A request was made to all school committee members for comment following the protest with no response.

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