The weight of whether to allow high school sports to be played this fall was evident during Wednesday night’s Carroll County’s Board of Education updates meeting, so much so that board members decided to wait another week to decide.
After hearing the pros and cons of getting athletics back onto the high school calendar, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a discussion led by Carroll supervisor of athletics Michael Duffy, Westminster High School athletic director Terry Molloy, and Century High School principal Brian Booz, the board agreed to hold another meeting Oct. 7 to discuss the matter further.
Ed Singer, the county’s top health official, wasn’t present at the meeting but voiced his opinion in a letter to board members and Superintendent Steve Lockard.
“I highly discourage you from implementing this plan," Singer wrote. "If we truly want to return students to the classroom and keep schools open, we need to focus first on reopening academic programming in a safe manner.”
The board agreed to stick to its timeline of beginning a hybrid learning model Oct. 19, but members added that they need to continue to monitor health department metrics and the potential of losing more than 300 staff members who have said they will take federally allowed employee leave.
On Sept. 24, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said high school sports could return as soon as Oct. 7, with competitions allowed to begin Oct. 27. That announcement came following the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association releasing its plan two weeks earlier to play all sports in the spring, starting Feb. 1. So far, two counties have opted to start on that earlier timeline while Duffy said more than 10 are waiting for the later date.
Duffy laid out the MPSSAA’s two-semester plan and also gave board members a plan for starting in a few weeks. Several of the CCPS staff members who spoke to the board talked about the difficulties of starting sports while concurrently trying to get students back into school buildings, focusing on safety and practical concerns.
Board member Ken Kiler, a strong proponent for sports, questioned putting athletics ahead of academics after listening to Duffy and the others.
“I want sports to happen ... but, my priority is Oct. 19,” Kiler said. “If the health department says they don’t endorse this, but they would consider it two weeks after we open Oct. 19 if everything stayed healthy, that would back this schedule up about a month. ... I just can’t put this over opening schools. But, if we’re not going to open schools, then this is an easy decision. I mean, what the hell? Let’s play sports.”
Delaying a fall sports start date more than what the state is allowing would complicate things, Duffy said. Some sports, such as golf or field hockey, wouldn’t be able to play in the fall because of daylight saving time ending in early November.
“I’m not sure we could realistically get in a full semblance of a fall season,” said Duffy, who earlier in the meeting talked with Molloy and Booz about the specifics of putting together said season.
Booz, a former coach and Carroll County high school athlete, said having athletics and extra-curricular activities at school is the best part of his job. He and Molloy, plus Duffy, recognized the importance of students being involved in these activities.
But all three men expressed concern over trying to get things together in a short amount of time.
“My life and stress level are at points I’ve never, ever imagined they could be,” Booz said. “It has been brutal. We change on a dime. We change without much notice.
“To think about starting next week, with all the other things we don’t know ... in my opinion, it’s too much. I think we need time and I think we need to do it right.”
Molloy said he’s a huge advocate of athletics, but believes the county needs to look at the benefits compared to the risk of getting groups of students back in stadiums and fields and gymnasiums. Cleaning sports equipment and figuring out how to cope with a deficit when it comes to an athletic budget are important factors, he said.
Molloy said he spent most of his summer helping to create the county’s “return to play” policy, which includes the non-sports and sports-specific workouts designed to keep athletes in shape but remain socially distant. That plan began Sept. 13 for fall athletes, and was in line with the MPSSAA’s two-semester plan for sports to return before the state’s decision last week.
“I’m absolutely a proponent for it, but I believe we have to have caution as we look at this,” Molloy said.
Carroll County this week began sports-specific practices in small groups, after going through two weeks of non-sports specific workouts and also remaining socially distant.
Allegany and Garrett counties each agreed this week to begin fall high school sports Oct. 7, while Montgomery County made an announcement last week that it will continue with a virtual athletic model until further notice. Washington County also decided this week that it will not play competitive sports this fall, but will continue with voluntary in-person conditioning and skills-based activities. Meanwhile, Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore announced Wednesday night it will not begin fall sports next week. Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, and Howard counties had yet to make decisions as of Wednesday.
At last week’s school board meeting, the members had reached consensus that high school sports should begin as soon as possible. The next day, the state made it possible and athletes, coaches, and parents awaited a decision. Now, they will wait another week.
Kiler and fellow board member Marsha Herbert, another former coach and a longtime supporter of athletics, voiced their emotions throughout the meeting.
“This is breaking my heart,” said Herbert, but she agreed that getting students into hybrid learning is the priority. “I just hope we can find a happy medium.”
Herbert and board member Tara Battaglia both noted that youth sports teams have been playing for a while now without serious health issues ― many of them crossing state lines to play ― and wondered why playing high school sports represented so much more of a challenge.
“Sports is important to a lot of these kids,” Battaglia said. “We keep taking away from them and taking away from them ... it’s getting harder for them to look at their future a little bit brighter right now. It’s a lot of doom and gloom.”
Herbert said it frustrates her to drive past Coppermine 4 Seasons complex in Hampstead and see many of Carroll County’s varsity field hockey players playing there, knowing they can’t play on any of their high school fields right now. Herbert read from an email the board received from Justin Sheetz, a senior at Liberty High School, who asked her to support the return of fall sports. Sheetz wondered why he’s allowed to play in rec soccer tournaments in and around the state, but not yet for the Lions.
“They’re traveling up and down the East Coast, and we can’t have sports,” Herbert said. “My first thing is, I do not want anything to happen that would mess up starting our hybrid ... but I do not understand how all these rec teams are crossing lines and competing every day, and not coming in with COVID cases, and we can’t have kids play soccer and field hockey, they can’t run cross country. I just don’t understand that.”
But Singer’s letter did mention that the health department has "seen case clusters linked to team parties, carpooling and other social gatherings associated with sports.”
Board member Patricia Dorsey, who also noted the importance of sports, said, “I don’t think we can lose our focus on the academic piece.”
More than 4 1/2 hours into the meeting, Donna Sivigny, school board president, moved to make the return of athletics the primary topic on the next meeting agenda, which is now scheduled to take place after the board’s closed meeting set for Oct. 7 at 5 p.m.
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“This is tough, this is very tough for me because I do not want to jeopardize opening school,” Kiler said, later adding, “[But] when do we have an easy subject?”