The Sept. 24 meeting of the Katonah-Lewisboro Board of Education was dominated by discussion of a plan to do away with Junior Varsity sports for the fall semester. That plan had first been presented to the board Sept. 10.

The discussion was similar in many ways to last fall’s mascot controversy: spread out over two meetings, marked by wildly divergent views and sometimes emotional statements, and, ultimately, resulting in a decision to go along with a plan worked out by administrators. 

However, unlike the mascot issue on which the board was unified, this topic brought out fundamental disagreements among trustees.

A letter from former trustee Jeffrey Holbrook, read into the record during public forum, presaged the discussion to follow. Mr. Holbrook said he understood the theory that by eliminating JV offerings during the pandemic, the district was reducing the number of students being exposed. However, he said an unintended consequence was that most students will now participate in some kind of youth league instead of JV teams. By doing so, he said, they will be exposed to a new group of students rather than the same set to which the JV team would be exposed. He also pointed out that parents have to pay to participate in those leagues, while already paying district coaches through their school taxes. He said many other districts were continuing their JV sports, and asked that KLSD reconsider. Those points were echoed by some current trustees.

The district’s decision on JV sports was preceded by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announcement Sept. 9 that there will be no football, volleyball or competitive cheerleading this fall. Deemed high-risk for possibly spreading COVID-19, those sports had their seasons postponed until March 1, 2021. On Sept. 2, Section I announced that it was pushing back the start of its fall season to Sept. 29. And on Sept. 4, NYSPHSAA delivered its Return to Interscholastic Athletics guidelines and safety protocols to administrators throughout the state.

Katonah-Lewisboro Superintendent Andrew Selesnick and Christian McCarthy, director of health, physical education, athletics and wellness, had worked together for months on a plan for restarting athletics. Implementation of that plan was tied to a resolution to appoint head and assistant coaches, which was approved by the board at the Sept. 10 meeting. The resolution did not include any JV coaches, but moved a JV coach up to varsity level. Mr. McCarthy said the purpose of the Sept. 24 presentation was to explain to the board the reasoning behind the plan, which would eliminate JV sports even though other schools are having them.

Mr. McCarthy had explained that KLSD’s model was different than most schools. “Our goal was to really put our emphasis on our varsity kids, because we can’t give them back their senior season,” he said. “And by moving the JV coaches up, we’re creating a staff that can allow us to cohort and social distance and limit the direct contact; we can’t remove it, obviously, but we can at least limit it.”

Guidance from NYSPHSAA, added Mr. McCarthy, said that all approved sports must follow rules set by the New York State Department of Health. Among these rules are that players should wear face coverings “unless players are unable to tolerate a face covering for the physical activity.” This, he said, presented a challenge, in that students who are wearing face coverings the rest of the time could find themselves in a situation where they might not be required. “Our biggest gray area has been around face coverings,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Both the state and the section, said Mr. McCarthy, have recommended that districts not impose more restrictive rules regarding face coverings, or they could place themselves in legal jeopardy. He said the district’s doctor had helped formulate a policy in which an athlete who cannot tolerate a mask can move to a different area and remove the mask. 

“The frustrating thing about what we’re managing is we’re dealing with multiple levels of government, in that the governor is giving us one set of information, the department of health is giving us another set of information, much of which is contradictory to what the governor is saying,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Another challenge brought up by Mr. McCarthy was that they may not be able to maintain student cohorts within the team sports environment. Asked by trustee Rory Burke to explain why, Mr. McCarthy responded that it was simply not possible to keep students within their cohorts when setting up teams or combining grade levels for certain sports.

Trustee Elizabeth Gereghty expressed reservations about the entire idea of moving forward with sports in the fall. She said with all the emphasis on keeping schools open by ensuring students were safe, it gave her pause to consider that sports teams would risk jeopardizing the whole school by mixing up cohorts and possibly having contact without masks. Mr. McCarthy said he was “heavily pushing” to have all schools in Section I require masks.

Trustee William Rifkin strongly objected to the district’s plans for fall sports. “This is a matter of life and death. This is a deadly disease,” he stated. “This whole operation is acting like we can somehow take time off and not be as vigilant because we’re doing sports.” He said trying something like this was “rolling the dice” and putting all the rest of the district’s work at risk. 

“We’ve been saying to the community, please do the right things, you’re putting everybody’s lives at risk — and then we go and do this. I don’t get it,” he said.

Trustee Julia Hadlock said it might be hard for board members to know if the plan for fall sports had disappointed the 125 or so families involved in school athletics, “but we have 800 families to worry about.” She also opposed mixing cohorts.

Implementing a practice-only model with no interscholastic competitions would probably be an unsuccessful one, replied Mr. McCarthy. “Our thought process behind this was trying to make this experience the best it could be. The focus was let’s give it a shot; let’s try to give something to the upperclassmen because their clock is ticking. They struggled immensely in the spring; this would be a devastating blow to lose two consecutive seasons.” 

He said the risk of exposure could be minimized but not eliminated. “You have to make really difficult decisions and you don’t know if they’re the right ones,” he said.

Mr. Burke questioned the recommendation to eliminate JV sports only. “Why are we favoring the varsity level? Why are we putting the burden on the JV families to go and pay for participation? If we’re going to do sports, we should do all sports or we should do no sports. But if we do interscholastic sports, I don’t see why we can’t find a creative way to make JV work.” The district has approved varsity teams to compete against teams from other schools this fall. 

“This is about strategic risk,” said trustee Terrence Cheng. “Cohorting somewhat reduces that risk. Christian and Andrew deserve a lot of credit for wrestling with this and trying to make the best out of a bad situation.” 

He also said it was “a little late” for trustees to voice concerns since the district’s plan was already known for some time. 

Board President Marjorie Schiff challenged that assertion, saying the board learned of the plan two weeks earlier and immediately after learned that many of the students who won’t be able to play JV sports plan to participate in sports programs outside of the district. She supported further examination of the district’s recommendations on JV sports, moving up coaches, and other topics.

Mr. McCarthy explained the entire planning timeline was shortened because of delayed decisions from the state. 

Mr. Selesnick noted there were several sections in the state that had decided not to play in the fall at all, and there were also at least two districts in Section I that had decided to opt out of fall sports. One other district in the Section has also decided against JV sports this fall, though most others were moving ahead with both JV and varsity, he noted. “There are a range of perspectives on this issue,” Mr. Selesnick said, “and I think we’ve heard some of the range even tonight.”

Trustees continued to voice differing opinions and concerns, with Mr. Rifkin saying he did not want to force a vote that would “put people in an uncomfortable position.” 

Ultimately, no resolution adjusting the district’s position was proposed. With that, the administration’s plan to move aheadwith no JV sports wa

Jeff Morris is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where he covers the Town of Bedford and the Katonah-Lewisboro School District. Prior to joining the paper he was a reporter and columnist for the Lewisboro Ledger and a business magazine editor.

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