All eyes were on the Oyster River High School School Board on November 18th as they met to decide the fate of this year’s winter sports season.
After a successful fall season, the Oyster River community was anxious to see whether or not the School Board would approve winter sports in light of COVID-19. With Stafford county cases rising, reaching nearly 5,000 according to the “New Hampshire Covid Map and Case Count” by the New York Times, many were worried the Board would be hesitant to allow sports that are primarily played indoors. However, after being presented with several options for the winter season, the School Board ultimately decided to follow a similar model to the fall season, which mandated social distancing on the bench, mask wearing at all times, and no spectators aside from parents. Though the season will look different than any before it, students and parents alike are looking forward to the return of winter sports.
Oyster River’s Athletic Director, Andy Lathrop, is in charge of all Oyster River athletics, including implementing the new COVID-19 protocol for the sports seasons. He presented to the Board on the night of the 18th, offering three options for what winter sports could look like during the pandemic. The first option was modeled after fall protocol, which allowed interscholastic competition under the condition that players followed social distancing regulations, wore masks when necessary, and only brought parents as spectators. The second option allowed sports teams to practice, but restricted any forms of interscholastic competition, and the third option banned winter sports altogether.
In a unanimous decision, the School Board voted for the first option. Students, who felt strongly about the importance of having winter sports, were surprised they reached a conclusion so quickly. Ella Stasko (‘21), who is a member of the indoor track team, watched the livestream of the meeting just to see the winter sports decision, and said that she anticipated the discussion taking much longer to reach a consensus.
However, the Board accepted the proposal relatively quickly. Community members in favor of athletics were grateful for the Board’s decision to go ahead with winter sports because many feel that athletics are crucial to mental health during this difficult time. “I’m really glad they’re doing winter sports. Sports are one of the best things we can be doing for mental health right now,” Stasko said.
Lathrop agreed, saying “especially with us not being in school a lot, sports are kind of the only way kids are able to connect with each other.” Many other community members, including students, parents, and administrators, emphasized the importance of socialization through athletics during the meeting as well.
Members of the Board also shared that they valued the importance of athletics. Thomas Newkirk, Chair of the Board, said, “it’s more important this year than any other year [to have sports] because it gives an outlet in a difficult year.”
Newkirk also mentioned that he was confident that Oyster River could pull off the winter sports season. Though there are concerns regarding rising cases in New Hampshire and what protocols other schools will be taking, he and other Board members point to the success of the fall as being a good sign.
However, students shouldn’t expect a regular season. Protocol for winter sports will be almost identical to that of fall sports. Spectators will be limited to parents of athletes, and they will be socially distant at games. Athletes will also practice social distancing on the benches and during practice, and locker rooms will be off limits. Additionally, because many winter sports are indoors, athletes will now be required to wear masks during play and practice.
Many athletes are wary of wearing masks throughout practices and games, but are willing to do what it takes to participate. “The mask mandate will be weird. It’s totally worth it, though, and it’s definitely smart for keeping us safe,” said Stasko. Other students agreed, with Nathalie Lessard (‘22) and Jenna Young (‘22) referencing how they have experience with following such safety precautions through their club teams during the public comment section of the meeting. Both Lessard and Young affirmed that, in their experiences, athletes were willing to make the mask mandate work in order to play the sport they love.
John Kell (‘21) also spoke during the public comments section, and said, “fall sports were extremely successful and have proven that winter sports can be pulled off as well.” He was there representing the ORHS Boys Hockey Team, and referenced their willingness to commit to following safety protocol.
After deliberating and voting, the Board discussed regulations regarding students’ ability to play in outside club teams and whether or not the high school fitness room should be used. They ultimately voted to allow administration to oversee club sports involvement, as well as to open the fitness room to athletes in need of rehabilitation per the direction of Athletic Trainer, Mike Feld.
Since the decision was made to have winter sports, preparation for the winter season can begin. Coaches are beginning to contact athletes now, with skills sessions beginning for teams on November 30th, and tryouts beginning on December 14th. NHIAA anticipates games beginning on January 11th, 2021. The hope is that, if the community can stay as dedicated to safety as they did during the fall, the winter season will go just as smoothly.