School board votes to allow fall varsity athletics season to begin at Princeton High School

In-person classes and other activities won’t begin in the Princeton Public Schools until some time in October, but varsity high school athletes in the district will be allowed to play sports starting today, Sept. 14, which is also the first day that all-remote learning begins in the school district.

The school board for the Princeton Public Schools voted 7-3 last week to approve the start of varsity sports as part of a plan to phase in other athletics programs. 

Each sports team will have a head coach and an assistant coach, with the exception of football, which will have a head coach and three assistant coaches. Interim Superintendent of Schools Barry Galasso estimated last week that between 125 and 130 students would participate in fall varsity sports. He said when schools reopen sometime in October, the athletic director will make recommendations about junior varsity and freshman-level sports. Once school begins in person, other school clubs could also meet in person if the club advisor deems it appropriate. Galasso said coaches and student-athletes must follow rules and regulations developed by the athletic director. If they don’t follow the rules, they will be removed from teams. 

“If there are continued violations, the entire sports program will be shut down because we are not going to allow for any misbehavior that jeopardizes our ability to bring back our students, which is our top priority,” Galasso said, adding that he is allowing varsity sports to begin because of the social and emotional support it will provide for athletes. 

Athletic Director Brian Dzbenski said he met with head coaches and they’re excited to start the season. Coaches are going to try to carry as many players on their rosters as they possibly can and expand their rosters so they can be as inclusive as possible. “We will keep as many kids as possible involved in a varsity program,” he said. 

Dzbenski said 272 students have registered to participate in a fall sport at Princeton High School this year. “At this time last year, we had medically cleared 466 students, so our numbers are down.”

A few middle schools in the area are launching intramural sports teams, Dzbenski said. Because of the hybrid model and remote learning, the middle school in Princeton does not have the staff to coach middle school sports. It would mean teachers would have to return to Princeton after teaching remotely in their homes. “I’m not certain that we would have the staffing at this moment in time to even run an intramural program at the middle school,” he said. 

Dzbenski said coaches, parents, and student-athletes will attend a zoom call where health and safety protocols will be reviewed. There will also be a health screening process that includes a questionnaire, and the temperatures of students, coaches, and bus drivers will be checked by athletics events staff before games For home games, the district will limit the number of attendees to under 500 people. Spectators will be required to wear masks and social distance. Athletes will be provided with hand sanitizer. 

School Board Member Michele Tuck-Ponder questioned how cheerleaders could perform given that cheerleading involves shouting. “Cheerleading is about yelling, so how do you intend to ensure that cheerleaders are also adequately protected in engaging in their sport?” she said. Officials said no stunts will be allowed and the cheerleaders will have to keep a minimum distance from each other of 10 feet when cheering.

School Board Member Dafna Kendal asked how student-athletes would be transported to competitions. District officials said some parents will drive their children to games. Up to 20 student-athletes per school bus could be transported to games by the district. She expressed concerns about contact sports like football and suggested that the district allow low-contact sports like cross country running. 

Many colleges and universities have canceled the fall football season. But there was a recent video shared with the superintendent that made a case that high school football players are at a lower risk of transmission than collegiate players. 

Princeton would be one of the few school districts without a fall varsity season if officials decided not to approve sports, Dzbenski said. In Mercer County, the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district is the only district so far to cancel the fall sports season. Princeton officials said the other schools moving forward should give Princeton officials confidence that they are doing the right thing. 

School Board Member Deb Bronfeld said she would support fall sports only if it involved local practice and play.  “The idea of games with other communities…I have no idea where their parents have been and where their kids have been. It just makes me very nervous. If one of our coaches gets sick, that’s a staff member that we’ve just lost — another teacher who won’t be in the room…I was hoping they could just train together and play intramurally together and learn skills together.”

Galasso said local health department officials have reviewed the district’s plan for athletics and approve of it, and said New Jersey is at the lowest transmission point in the pandemic right now. 

During public comment, resident Lori Weir said students need to be able to play fall sports outdoors for their physical and emotional well being. “There’s no logical reason our PHS kids cannot play,” she said. “Our fields are an extension of our classroom and I’d say we are lucky they are outside, and they’re available, and that we have all these great coaches that are ready to coach our kids. But I just also want to add and emphasize that the opportunity to accrue the benefits of school sports should not be limited to only the very best players and that the opportunity should be available for all students who choose to play, so long as the coaches can manage it…Don’t try to keep it simple and say just varsity because such a decision would be detrimental to at least half the kids who want to play, and it’s most especially the freshmen who are looking forward to fall sports as one way to actually meet friends and acclimate to this high school, and they too need a robust experience. I’d say as a parent of a senior and a freshman, parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and it would also undermine the future of the sports programs that we are so proud of if we don’t have them.”

Weir also suggested that kids who are not playing outdoors are more likely to get together indoors. “I think that we all would agree that that is a less desirable outcome.” 

Resident John Durbin, president of the West Windsor Plainsboro Babe Ruth League, said his baseball league played this summer.  “We were one of the last leagues standing that hadn’t officially canceled the regular season here locally…I don’t think anybody on the Babe Ruth board thought we were going to be able to play but in the end, with the lowering of the infection rates and the hospitalization rates and then Governor Murphy giving us the green light, we decided to go for it and we went for it primarily because of just the flood of ongoing emails that we had gotten about how  parents were concerned about all the difficulties that their sons were having  with not being able to get out and do sports and just endlessly playing video games and doing nothing else.”

Durbin said 65 kids signed up they fielded four teams. “We were able to make it through the season successfully without any diagnosis of COVID.”

Alicia Brennan a resident and pediatrician at the Princeton Medical Center in Plainsboro who said she has been working primarily in the emergency room and on the inpatient floor, said the transmission rates are at the lowest right now in New Jersey, “which seems to be a good time to dip our feet in the water and see how things are going.” 

She said her daughter has been playing club soccer over the summer and it’s been going very well. She said depression and eating disorders among teens are on the rise, and that the number of kids coming to the emergency room of the eating disorder clinic is “through the roof.” She said it’s important to get kids out of the house and have them interact with their peers. “At a time like this. anything we can do to embrace normalcy while trying to stay safe is definitely what I would recommend for our kids. As a pediatrician, I’m comfortable you putting my daughter in that situation.”

Resident Julia Dipple said all summer long, the varsity boys’ soccer team has been practicing every Tuesday and Thursday at noon at “captain practices” where the coaches do not attend the practice. “There are a whole lot of boys’ varsity soccer players practicing, and not a single one has gotten sick the entire summer, so they’re already practicing.”

Ponder said the school board’s job is to ensure that students are educated. “That’s every student, and especially our vulnerable students, and I really one feel that that’s what we ought to be focusing on. Secondly, I’m not confident that we will be able to adequately keep our kids safe. I understand and respect the decision of parents who are good with having their kids play in sports but we are including football. If the majority of colleges in the country could keep football safe, don’t you think they’d be playing right now? If the job of a cheerleader is to do stunts and to cheer for her team, how can she accomplish that wearing a mask and not being able to do stunts? I’ ‘m not sure that what we’re offering our kids is a full sports experience it is we have half the kids signing up…My major concern is about the risk.”

Kendal said the district administration shared an article with the board from a study at Penn State University about health complications due to COVID-19 for athletes. She also cited a study at Ohio State University that shows that among the 15 to 20 percent of student-athletes who had the virus and only had mild symptoms, there was a 15 to 30 percent chance of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that can lead to cardiac arrest with exertion. She expressed concerns about the health risks for athletes.

“I’m also concerned that allowing sports in this limited way will potentially jeopardize the reopening of schools,” she said. “It’s also a matter of equity. If we’re going to allow sports, we need to allow drama to proceed and the studio band and other activities, and give kids the opportunity who don’t play sports. Philosophically, I’m troubled that our sports will begin when our students are not in the classroom yet. I understand student-athletes have suffered, but so have all our other kids.”

School Board Member Brian McDonald said he strongly endorses the sports plan. If it is not successful, the superintendent can change course, he said. 

“Sports are happening on our fields and on our track. I think the ability to have our wonderful coaches working with our children and young adults who they know, who they see in the hallways — to help them grow and develop with some limited interscholastic competition is a wonderful thing for us to do,” McDonald said. “While the pandemic is very challenging for adults and children of all ages, there have been numerous studies that have said that the damage to student-athletes is measurable and it’s significant. It ranges from a decline in academic performance and reduced self-esteem to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. So to the extent that we can limit some of that, I think we’re doing what we should be doing for one group of kids without jeopardizing all of the other kids.”

Peter Katz, the school board representative for Cranbury, said New Jersey is at the lowest point in the pandemic since it started. “If we do not go back to some normalcy in a stepped-up approach now, when do we do it? What is the metric by which we decide we go back to that normalcy at some point? I imagine we all envision that this is not going to be the new normal, right?” Katz said. “We’re not going to have remote school forever. Eventually, we will go back and my question is, when do we do it? We could wait until there are zero cases of COVID in Princeton, in New Jersey, in the country, in the world, but I don’t think that we need to wait until there’s zero cases to do that. I think having a measured approach and a measured start makes sense. That seems to be what we’ve done in New Jersey from the very beginning, and we in New Jersey have been among the most successful states in our country in making sure we stay safe.”

Katz said one can’t compare starting an indoor activity like school with an outdoor activity. “If we could teach kids outdoors, I think we should go back to school tomorrow. We just don’t have the capacity to do that. If we can do it for sports, I think we should if we do it in a measured way a safe way one that abides by all the protocols that have been set forth.” 

School Board Member Jess Deutsch said the district needs to carefully weigh the risks and the benefits of what kids need in terms of normalcy, activity, and the things that they love. She said beginning sports is a step in the right direction in terms of educating students. 

School Board Member Betsey Baglio said the district should develop a plan to bring back sports at the middle school. 

School Board Member Daniel Dart said New Jersey properly managed the crisis earlier than most states and COVID cases in the region are very low, therefore it is a good time to move forward with the plan. “COVID-19  is about taking two steps forward and one step back. I hope in terms of equity, this can set a precedent for the middle school and all the clubs and intramural sports and other activities that our students so desperately need…It’s not just about sports it’s much more than that. I think that on balance,  it’s a good plan and we should move forward and I have confidence that the administration can manage any setbacks appropriately.”

Ponder, Bronfeld, and Kendal voted against the plan. Behrend, McDonald, Baglio, Kanter, Deutsch, Dart, and Katz voted for the plan.

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