School Committee Reacts to Rules for Winter Sports

Reading, MA — Superintendent John Doherty’s presentation of the new rules for high school winter sports for the upcoming season were met with criticism from several members of the School Committee on Thursday, December 3. The criticism was not levied at Doherty himself or his presentation, but rather at the rules adopted by the Middlesex League superintendents by unanimous vote. Doherty emphasized several times during the discussion that the regulations were not Reading rules, but league rules.

The rule most criticized is the prohibition of spectators, including parents, at any game or match for the winter season, including basketball, hockey, and gymnastics. “These [rules] are too restrictive.” School Committee member Carla Nazzaro declared. 

“I think the league is being lazy.” Chair Chuck Robinson followed. He then suggested that a limited number of parents, socially distanced with masks such as varsity athletes or seniors, could be allowed safely. “[These new rules] are not for safety.” Robinson continued.

Different ideas about allowing one parent per athlete were floated, with Doherty only responding that the new rules were a league decision and that staffing could be an issue. When asked what would happen if Reading simply ignored the no spectator rule, Doherty suggested that other schools would choose not to play Reading, creating forfeits. He also added that many districts across the state are merely canceling all winter sports.

School Committee member Thomas Wise shared concerns regarding the impact of not allowing parents to watch games. “We are missing the social and emotional health side of things,” Wise suggested. “We need to be creative and not take the first easy answer.” Member Erin Gaffen inquired why measures used to curtail crowds in the fall could not be applied to winter sports. Doherty responded that the difference is that winter sports occur indoors.

Nazzaro was not satisfied with this answer, posing the rhetorical question as to why ten students and a teacher with masks and appropriately distanced could be in a classroom. Still, thirty or forty persons could not be in the Field House or Burbank Ice Arena using the same parameters. Nazzaro also posed a rhetorical question from a parent asking why it is safe to watch her younger child play hockey at Burbank Ice Arena, but not her high school student. “It makes no sense.” Nazzaro opined.

Additional restrictions adopted by the Middlesex League include masks for all participants, limited practice schedules, no school-provided transportation, and that all games or matches between schools will occur during the same week to limit cross-school exposure. Indoor track and boys swimming will be moved to the “Fall 2” season, which begins in February, with wrestling planned for the spring.

Robinson, Wise, and Nazzaro recommended that Doherty return to the league and seek a different approach to the issue. “They need to roll their sleeves up and come up with creative ideas.” Robinson asserted.

By a vote of 5-1, the School Committee appointed 17 members to the Preliminary Superintendent Search Committee. This committee will be charged with reviewing applications for the superintendent of schools position and performing initial interviews with candidates. The number of members appointed is one more than the 16 recommended by the working group, and two more than the School Committee originally agreed to place in the group. Nazzaro was the sole dissenting vote.

The Preliminary Search Committee will be comprised of two School Committee members, Wise and Gaffen, Town Manager Robert LeLacheur, Police Chief David Clark, one building principal, Julia Hendrix, Gail Dowd from the School District Central Office, and a mix of ten staff members and parents.

Several School Committee members praised the quality of all the applicants for the committee. However, School Committee member Shawn Brandt suggested that one candidate, Theresa Wiggins, should be added to the list due to her “checking several of the boxes” needed in the group. Gaffen agreed, “One hundred percent [Wiggins] would have been on the top of my list.”

Wise shared the challenge of creating a suggested list adding that Wiggins, though highly qualified, was already participating on the “Portrait of the Graduate” committee. It was believed that the School Committee should not keep using the same people over and over for its volunteer positions. Nazzaro stated strongly that she wanted to maintain the committee size of fifteen as was previously agreed upon.

Wise also expressed concern over parent/staff balance on the committee. “Staff didn’t apply; we can’t do anything about that,” Robinson added. The vote to amend the list to add Wiggins was 4-2, with Wise and Nazzaro as the dissenting votes. Wise, however, ultimately voted in favor of the motion appointing the entire group with Wiggins’ addition.

The School Committee voted 6-0 to approve amended transportation contracts with busing vendors. It voted 6-0 to approve the second reading of an updated student rights and privileges policy and voted 6-0 to approve the first reading of a new policy regarding advisory committees.

After continued discussion, the first reading of the policy regarding teaching about controversial issues was accepted by a vote of 4-2 with Wise and member John Parks dissenting. The school committee intends to reach out to interested groups for comment on the policy before a second reading and final vote.

The School Committee voted 6-0 to adopt two calendars for the 2021-22 school year: one if hybrid learning is still in place and one as a more traditional calendar. The Chief Financial Officer opened the School Committee meeting introducing new Human Resources Director Kerry Meisinger, who will begin her work on Monday.

The School Committee adjourned at 11:00 pm.

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