MANCHESTER, N.H. – After weeks of delay on a decision, winter sports will be returning to Manchester’s public schools in January.
On Monday night, the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) approved winter sports 12-3 with a set of caveats.
All student-athletes and coaches outside of competitive cheerleaders and wrestlers will be required to wear a face mask or face covering during play, there will be no fans, and student-athletes playing for varsity teams will not be able to play for out-of-school teams during the season.
The student-athletes will also be required to remain in remote learning even if their peers return to in-person or hybrid instruction, with exceptions for unified sports programs for special needs students.
If any student-athlete tests positive for COVID-19, their entire team will be required to quarantine for 10 days and all games and practices will be paused.
The public comment session at the beginning of the meeting had nearly an hour of students, coaches and other community members urging the BOSC to bring back sports, citing their importance to student mental health and their impact on academics for some students.
The principals of Manchester’s three public high schools with sports programs also voiced their support, with Manchester Central Principal John Vaccarezza sharing his viewpoint from a car while awaiting the end of his child’s soccer practice.
“We don’t want to be the school district that takes sports away from students. Because if we do that, we cannot go back,” he said. “If you listened to the first 57 minutes of the meeting, it seems like a decision that the students of Manchester want.”
James O’Connell (At-Large) echoed the sentiments among many members of the public comment section regarding the importance of sports for the mental health needs of student-athletes.
Manchester Health Department Director Anna Thomas told the BOSC that she didn’t feel comfortable supporting or opposing the return of sports, noting that the matter was an issue of how much risk the BOSC could accept. Even with the new safety protocols, she noted that the risk of a student-athlete or coach becoming infected with COVID-19 was not zero.
She also noted that 133 Manchester residents have died from COVID-19 since March out of 4,000 cases in the city, with 1,300 people infected right now.
Thomas also said that Manchester should not be compared to other school districts across the state that have approved the return of winter sports due to Manchester’s unique size and population density in New Hampshire.
That infection rate was the key behind opposition from Arthur Beaudry (Ward 9), who noted that the two-week new case rate per 100,000 Manchester residents is eight times higher than it was in the fall. He added that if it was not safe for students to be in the classroom, logically sports are not safe either, reasoning that Dr. Nicole Leapley (Ward 11) also noted, although Leapley said she would support the return of sports if students were allowed to return to in-person instruction.
Support for the return was not uniform. Leslie Want (Ward 4) was swayed by the feedback as she was during discussion on a fall season. James Dobson (Ward 5) was swayed as well and supported the measure in the belief that it was what his constituents wanted, but said he supported it with a “heavy heart” and hoped people could show as much support for other issues.
Mayor Joyce Craig felt more comfortable with supporting winter sports given the new guidelines, but did not feel comfortable supporting wrestling due to masks not being able to be used safely during competition.
Leapley and Beaudry were joined by James Porter (Ward 1) in opposing the measure, with no absences.
Games can begin as early as Jan. 11, with Manchester Central and Manchester Memorial beginning a week later.