WATERTOWN — When the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Section 3 committed to playing low- and moderate-risk interscholastic sports this fall, Watertown City School District Superintendent Patricia LaBarr was shocked.
For LaBarr, opening schools again has already been a tremendous challenge, something she anticipated when schools shut down last spring. Like all schools in the state, it has required intense health measures and adjusted schedules just to allow a portion of students to experience in-person learning each day. Adding sports to the mix would be a unique challenge in and of itself.
“These are things we have to do during the school day, how do we ensure the safety of our students in a sports arena?” LaBarr said. “And I think it would be fair to say, sports look differently. When you think about cross country and you think about soccer, they are different. When you think about cohorting and masks and social distancing and the safety protocols, we’ve worked really hard to put things in place.”
Watertown and 11 other schools in Jefferson County and the Sandy Creek School District jointly decided on Sept. 16 that they will not participate in low- and moderate-risk sports this fall.
That group decision was a product of a working relationship the Jefferson County superintendents have held for awhile, and one that has strengthened over the course of the past few months.
“It kind of goes back to when we made the decision back in March when we shut our schools down, at that point we had an in-person meeting out at our local Boces on a Saturday, and we just worked through it together as a team,” LaBarr said. “Since we’ve been out since March, we’ve met weekly (over WebX), at the beginning it was several times a week and now it’s weekly or as needed.”
The meetings, which are held with superintendents in Jefferson and Lewis counties, have given districts the ability to work through the many problems that all schools are facing.
When Section 3’s decision came down, Watertown tried to figure out how it could host athletics so that it wouldn’t compromise its in-person schooling. LaBarr consulted her athletic director George Emrich, her district physician Dr. Benjamin Rudd and the other Frontier League superintendents.
At a school board meeting on Sept. 15, the day before 12 Frontier League schools postponed its fall seasons, Emrich brought up the idea of possibly playing some low-risk fall sports but not moderate-risk ones (soccer).
“As it got closer to making that decision, I would say that I probably wasn’t as far ahead as other districts may have been, because I felt like some of the things that George was suggesting may have worked for us,” LaBarr said. “But it didn’t take much convincing when I had two positive cases.”
Last Wednesday, the same day the fall sports postponement decision was announced, Watertown announced two students had tested positive for COVID-19, both were remote learners.
When discussing athletics, LaBarr spoke with other superintendents from similar schools.
“Ideas were thrown out there, if we were to go forward with it, it could have been Watertown, Indian River, Carthage and maybe General Brown,” LaBarr said. “The four of us (superintendents) are working together and we’re having that talk and we kind of just talk it out. (Playing sports) didn’t make sense really at that point for any of us.”
“The beauty of it is, we all work extremely well because we think ‘how can we make experiences in the north country for our children, whether it’s graduation at the end of the year, or now sports, how can we make them as equitable as possible for each district without making somebody way different than the other group,’” LaBarr said.
The decision to postpone fall sports wasn’t made in haste given its timing, nor was it made without an understanding of the role sports play in the lives of students, she said.
“I want those more for the kids more than they want it for themselves, because I think we all want a return to normalcy,” LaBarr said. “But at the same time, when we’re being challenged with a pandemic and putting safety protocols in place, at the end of the day, my job is to ensure student safety.”
Not all Frontier League school districts postponed sports. Beaver River, Lowville, Copenhagen and South Lewis, all schools in Lewis County, decided to give low- and moderate-risk sports a try this fall. LaBarr said there are no hard feelings felt toward those schools because it was decision that works best for them.
Watertown, along with other Frontier League schools who postponed fall sports, will attempt to offer intramural sports for its students during the fall semester. The idea is that not only will it give students an opportunity to be active, but also serve as a way for the district to slowly ease into athletics.
The NYSPHSAA has stated that “Fall Sports Season II” for football, volleyball and competitive cheer will begin on March 1, but the 12 Frontier League schools who delayed their low- and moderate-risk fall seasons have yet to commit to a starting date. Nevertheless, plans to play these postponed sports are in the works.
“Oh, we’ve already started working on it,” Emrich said. “We’re trying to plan, well ahead and try to come up with some schedules. I think our biggest concern with that time of year is going to be the weather, we just hope the snow is gone by March 1st, but we know in reality we might be dealing with a foot of snow on our field.”