By Curt Peterson
With indoor winter sports already underway, the WCSU School Board met Monday evening to review policies instituted by Superintendent Sherry Sousa. After intense discussion, board members voted 10-6 in favor of endorsing Sousa’s protocols.
Put briefly, indoor middle and high school sports, such as basketball and hockey, will be open to spectators with limitations. Each athlete will be given four “season passes” allowing entry of four spectators per game during the season. Visiting players will be given four passes for Woodstock games. All players, officials and spectators must wear masks within buildings.
For context, Windsor and Rutland counties (populations roughly 55,000 each) are second and third, respectively, among all Vermont counties for pure numbers of positive tests for Covid, each tallying over 800 cases in the last two weeks as of Dec. 13. Only Chittenden County (population 167,000) has higher pure numbers — about 1,100.
Emotional arguments for and against were made by board members, some of whom are parents of affected athletes, and by members of the public.
Passionate pleas in favor of the Sousa policies were based on mental health benefits for the students, players’ desire for parents and grandparents to see them compete, athletes having earned the right to play for fans because of the hard work they’ve done pre-season, and that sports provide relief from the 20 months of Covid restrictions.
One parent argued WCSU is behaving like “an ivory tower” — that “all the other venues where our players compete have little or no restrictions regarding Covid,” so more cautious restrictions at home are already “unfair.”
Sousa, Woodstock Middle and High School principal Garon Smail and others repeatedly cited the 80% vaccination rate in the pertinent age group, which, they said, both validates past WCSU policies and better protects the students against the virus.
Whether or not Sousa had the authority to set the policy in November was unclear. Board member Jim Haff (Killington) thought the superintendent should research the situation and make a winter sports proposal for board review prior to making it public.
Sousa’s interpretation, affirmed by other board members, was that she was to research and set the policy, which she did, and announced it to parents and students in November. She itemized the steps she had taken, including surveys of students, parents, administrators and coaches.
“Please realize this was not the only important thing with which I was dealing,” she said.
One focus was deterioration of student mental health. Those in favor of Sousa’s protocols said having spectators at indoor winter sports events would be good for community mental health in general.
Of the 20 games on the Wasps’ schedule this season, 10 of them away games where WCSU restrictions will not be enforced.
The lady Wasps are playing Chittenden/Burlington at 4:30 Tuesday afternoon in Chittenden County, putting athletes, officials, coaches and spectators from the three counties with the highest number of positive Covid cases in one arena for 90 minutes.
Haff and board members Adam Ameele (Reading), Anna Sessa (Reading) and Bill Overbay (Pomfret) expressed concerned over the risk and benefits involved with Sousa’s policy, citing known downsides of possibly infected students missing classes.
Sousa said there is no remote learning option if that happens, because there is no emergency status from the state. Students who are isolated for pandemic reasons will be provided with lessons and materials they can use to keep up with their classes, she said.
Sessa was particularly interested in how, even at home games, the masking rule would be enforced, and who would do the enforcing. Willis said violators would be warned, then removed from the arena if they didn’t comply, but he didn’t say by whom.
Haff said damage to school property and disrespect of both facilities and maintenance staff are also products of pandemic conditions, and taking additional risks would only make these issues worse if staff are exposed to virus through sports events.
Overbay, Woodstock representative Todd Ulman and others offered compromises involving limiting elementary students’ games to local spectators only, increased testing and contact tracing, and eliminating away games, but they went unheeded.
Even after affirmation of the current policy, Woodstock parent Nicole McKeon, a human resources consultant with a nursing background, and other parents restated their pleas to promote continuance of the winter sports schedule because the students “need” and are entitled to it.