Maryland schools get green light for earlier start to winter sports

The Maryland State Board of Education has given the green light to a plan that would move up the start of the winter sports season by nearly two months, the latest in a series of changes to the school sports calendar in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The move came as state education officials continued their call for schools to bring students back to classrooms for some form of in-person instruction.

Under the school sports plan approved by board members at a virtual meeting Monday, the start date for competitive winter sports would be Dec. 7 instead of Feb. 1.

The change was requested by the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland.


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Currently, 15 school districts have started small groups of in-person conditioning and skills development practice, including Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and Frederick counties.

Six school systems — including Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — continue to provide virtual-only sessions.

For those school systems that haven’t provided any in-person athletic activities at all, moving up the winter sports schedule could lead to a time crunch, state education officials said.

Maryland regulations require schools systems provide at least 20 calendar days of practice before any sports games or matches.

“For those school systems, being able to get things in place before Dec. 7 is extremely important … so that they can gradually move into a competition season,” said Andy Warner, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, which works out of the Maryland State Department of Education.

“And if they are unable to do that, there is a lot of risk for school systems that cannot move forward Dec. 7 of having to cancel their basketball or wrestling or indoor track or swimming and diving seasons, because they can’t meet the new time frame established for a competitive season for winter sports,” Warner said.

He said state officials would accommodate school systems that aren’t ready to go right on Dec. 7.

“We would allow them to join in at any particular point in time that they can get those 20 calendar days (of practice),” Warner said. “It just shrinks their competition season. And at some point in time, they’re going to have to come out and say, ‘We have to cancel winter sports because we never got started to that particular point of time.'”

The state school board voted 13-0 to support the change.

Moving up the start of the winter sports season is just the latest shift in a series of changes to the school sports calendar that even board officials have acknowledged is confusing.

“I think it’s clear as mud,” said school board Vice Chair Jean C. Halle as board members debated the latest changes.

In August, the superintendents group, known as PSSAM for short, requested that the traditional fall sports season be postponed until after February, and came up with an alternative calendar that put all three traditional sports seasons — fall, winter and spring — into the two remaining semesters: winter sports first, followed by fall sports and then spring sports.

On Sept. 24, in light of improving health metrics across the state, State Superintendent Education Karen Salmon, who has pushed schools to begin reopening their doors, made a surprise announcement, giving school systems the all-clear to start their fall sports season Oct. 7.

However, only three Maryland schools systems — Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties — took Salmon up on her offer. The remaining 21 school systems decided to stick with the superintendents’ plan, which originally envisioned starting the winter sports season Feb. 1

The request to change the February start date to early December was laid out in a memo to the board from the superintendents’ group, and supported athletics supervisors at 19 local systems, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

In a letter sent students, parents and staff later on Monday, officials with Montgomery County Public Schools, said the school system’s COVID-19 athletics task force is preparing for the return of in-person conditioning and skill-based activities and will “review the implications of this calendar adjustment.” The letter added: “The return of in-person activities will occur when health metrics allow an in alignment with the plan to return students to schools.”

Speaking during the meeting Monday, Salmon said she supports starting the winter sports season in December and said she would have preferred school systems restarted sports even earlier.

“I would hope that school systems are going to open (the winter season) on Dec. 7 and that this is not going to be another scenario where we get pushback again,” Salmon said.

Education superintendent urges return to classroom

The board’s action on school sports came after the board also voted to support Salmon’s continued call that all schools begin returning to some form of in-person learning.

Citing the “enormous cost” to children of keeping school buildings closed, Salmon called on schools to begin transitioning to at least a hybrid teaching model that would see some students return to classrooms.

“Some medical experts are saying it’s time to shift the discussion away from the risk of opening K-12 (schools) to the risk of keeping them closed,” she told board members.

Overall, 14 of Maryland’s 24 school systems are already implementing or plan to implement a hybrid learning option.

Salmon also pointed to new research indicating school settings are not significant “super-spreaders” of the coronavirus.

One new study, carried out by Emily Oster at Brown University, looked at 200,000 students in 47 states from the last two weeks of September and found the infection rate was just 0.13% among students 0.24% among staff.

“We understand that the number of COVID cases in schools will not be zero,” Salmon said. “And for some people, that means the numbers are not acceptable in terms of returning students to school buildings. But zero was never a realistic expectation.”

The Maryland Department of Health plans to start publicly reporting a summary of COVID-19 outbreaks in both public and nonpublic schools, Salmon said. The online dashboard could be available as early as next week, she said, and would provide a “statewide level of transparency.”

On the site, an outbreak would be defined as two or more related coronavirus cases in a school.

The board’s vote endorsing the superintendents view that schools should return students to class doesn’t mandate a change but amplifies Salmon’s stance.

 

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