ASHLAND -- When Hanover County Public Schools officials announced a decision to suspend winter sports activities earlier this month, a number of student athletes began a campaign designed to persuade administrators to allow the sports to continue.
HCPS officials told stakeholders winter sports activities would be suspended until a final decision is reached no later than Friday, Dec. 18.
A number of students and parents pleaded their case at a regularly scheduled Hanover County School Board meeting last week. All spoke in favor of the continuation of winter sports, including basketball, indoor track, wrestling, gymnastics, and swimming.
The efforts coincide with recent rises in COVID-19 cases nationwide and a warning by Dr. Michael Gill, HCPS superintendent, that case increases could jeopardize face-to-face instruction in the county.
“We understand that everyone is weary from the pandemic and craves normalcy. However, we must remain vigilant, especially as we head into the holiday season. Vigilance helps to protect everyone. Vigilance keeps our students healthy and ready to learn. Vigilance helps to keep our teachers and staff healthy so they can provide our students with the high-quality instruction, support, and opportunities that they need and deserve. Vigilance helps to keep our schools open,” Gill wrote in an emailed letter to stakeholders and parents.
Hanover was the only school district to open for face-to-face instruction in September, and many speakers credited officials for offering those opportunities.
“Hanover County schools have been a shining light for the rest of the Commonwealth as we are one of the very few counties that have the option to go 100% in-person,” said Henry Atkinson, a junior at Hanover High School. “We are a leader in academics and now I believe it’s time for us to lead the way in sports,” he added, while encouraging board members to reinstate winter sports.
When activities were suspended last week, officials said the decision was collaborative, made “in close consultation with Chickahominy Health District officials, and with the support of our [Hanover County] School Board, middle and high school principals, and athletic directors. We will continue to do so moving forward.”
The warnings were not lost on the students who spoke at last week’s meeting, and many expressed guarantees that student athletes would follow guidelines and take all possible measures to ensure safety.
“I promise you that our student athletes will rise up to the occasion, being committed to doing whatever it takes to be able to play our beloved sports,” Atkinson said. “We are completely aware of the risks and the precautions needed to make the season successful and are completely onboard with doing whatever it takes and whatever is needed to ensure that we are allowed to play.”
Some suggested wearing masks while attending events and others acknowledged some sports present complicated challenges while others do not. For example, several swimmers defended their season, noting the social distancing involved with the sport. Hanover swimmers currently train and hold events at Burkwood Recreation Center and several speakers noted their commitment to following guidelines regarding the pandemic.
“Some winter sports may be more difficult to remain safe while playing, but sports should be weighed individually in order to give some sports a chance to play,” said Hanover High School swimmer Kaitlyn Carroll. “Burkwood has held numerous training opportunities. Not one COVID-19 case has arisen from these activities,” she said during the public comment period at last week’s meeting. “Burkwood has done an exemplary job of keeping its swimmers safe, making social distancing guidelines both in and out of pool and mandating masks while not swimming.”
Others pointed to other benefits produced from participating in sports.
“Sports, for me, and I’m sure for some other students, gives us a safe space from our crazy lives and betters not only our physical health but our mental health as well,” Atkinson said.
Robert Dull is the parent of three Patrick Henry High School students and told board members, “I am one of the many parents who want to see our kids be able to participate in sports.”
His daughter plays on the basketball team and is eager to participate in this year’s season with her teammates.
“She and her teammates have worked very hard to prepare themselves for the upcoming basketball season,” Dull said. “I believe these kids need to play sports. I think that our county and each school’s individual community need them to play sports. Our kids are resilient but they are dealing with something very difficult for everyone. Sports will be a welcomed change and will benefit our children,” he added.
Many speakers, including Dull, noted that sports are being played in summer and travel leagues without major problems due to COVID.
Dull said the current situation is especially difficult for seniors. “I do not want to see seniors lose out on playing a sport that they have poured their hearts and soul into for multiple years.”
Dull said losing that senior season could jeopardize scholarship opportunities for those students seeking to continue their careers in college.
Autumn Just is preparing for the upcoming indoor track season and said that process has provided peace of mind in an otherwise frantic atmosphere.
“In the short time I’ve participated in track conditioning, my mental health has vastly improved and I find myself more positive and happy to be in school,” Just said.
She suggested moving forward even if winter sports are canceled in other areas in the region by scheduling in county contests or even intra-squad competitions.
Many metro region school districts have announced cancellations regarding winter sports.
The dozen speakers who addressed the board all expressed a desire to continue winter sports and expressed appreciation for Hanover’s decision to offer face-to-face instruction while other systems opted for online learning models.
Chair John Axselle, Beaverdam District, complimented the students for their reasoned comments and the civil nature of their presentations.
He assured the students a decision would be reached by Dec. 18 after board members and administrators considered all sides of the issue.