Concerns about masks and the still unresolved situation with Mashashimuet Park were at the forefront of the discussion at Monday night’s Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting.
Several parents weighed in — both in person at the meeting and online via Zoom — wondering if and when the district would come to an agreement with the Board of Directors of Mashashimuet Park that would allow the park to remain the home of interscholastic sports for the middle school and high school teams, as it has been for decades. The contract with the park expired in June, and the two parties have been locked in negotiations since then, with no resolution.
Several parents pleaded with board members and school officials to come to a decision soon, with the start of the fall sports season perilously close. The first practice date for outdoor fall sports like cross country, field hockey, and soccer is set for August 23, and while some of those teams can play games and host practices at the grass field behind the high school, the district still needs other available playing space to feasibly host all those teams.
Kevin Dehler has been one of several outspoken advocates for encouraging the park to make several much needed upgrades to its fields and facilities. He asked whether or not he and other parents would have a chance to hear from both school officials and the park board in a public forum. School Board President Brian DeSesa said that they are planning to host a public forum “in the near future,” and added that the district has been in ongoing discussions with the park.
“We’re hoping they’ll be fruitful,” he said of those conversations, before reiterating that the board cannot discuss details of contract negotiations. “I believe we’ll come to a decision soon, and I know sports are starting soon. We’re working daily on that.”
Those reassurances, which have been coming from the school over the last several weeks, aren’t providing as much comfort for parents and student athletes as they may have earlier in the summer. Nancy Hallock — whose youngest daughter is a rising junior and plays several varsity sports — made a polite but impassioned plea for the school and park to figure it out as soon as possible.
“My ask is that if a resolution can’t occur before the start of the season, can we agree to a temporary one-year extension that would allow them to continue playing at the park and not be bused out of the district?” she asked. “These kids have already been through so much.”
She pointed out that the cancellation of the spring sports season at the end of the 2019-20 school year was followed by a 2020-21 school year where athletes saw only “bits and pieces” of seasons because of COVID-related cancellations and the need to shorten season, and are now facing a third year where the interscholastic sports experience they’d hoped for is in doubt.
“Now they’re facing the possibility of not being at their home field following a year that was up in the air, while going through a pandemic,” she said. “We’re trying to get our kids to be in the best shape they can be, physically, athletically and academically. If they have to spend more time on buses, they’ll have less time for homework and stress will rise.”
Ms. Hallock said she appreciated the “good faith effort” everyone is making to come to an agreement, but pleaded with the board to find a solution, even if it’s a stop-gap one.
“You’re here for the kids and the park board is here for the kids,” she said. “Let them have a little bit of normalcy. If there are some extreme issues with safety or areas that need repair, maybe we can fence them off, but don’t send the kids off to Hampton Bays or somewhere else.”
There was pleading of a different sort from two other parents who were present at the meeting and spoke during the public comment portion. Both Ike Birdsall and Christine Mazzeo took time to express their belief that the district should not mandate mask wearing for students. Mr. Birdsall, who has one child going into pre-kindergarten at the Sag Harbor Learning Center, and another child entering third grade, said he believes masking should be voluntary.
“It’s vital to have facial expression and recognition from their peers,” he said, adding his belief that “kids are neither victims or vectors of COVID-19.” After speaking, he passed out photocopies of studies to board members, that he said challenge the idea that masks are necessary and helpful for children in school settings.
Ms. Mazzeo, a mother of three children in the district, said she’s “not completely against masks,” and echoed some of Mr. Birdsall’s sentiments, saying she thinks the choice of whether or not to mask children in schools should be up to parents.
She said mask wearing is particularly challenging for her kids and inhibits their ability to learn well in school because they deal with several issues that are exacerbated by masking, including ADHD, asthma, and anxiety.
In response, Superintendent Jeff Nichols said that he respected their right to have an opinion, but was clear about how the district will make its decisions regarding masking.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC both recommend masking in schools for students ages 2 and up, regardless of vaccination status,” he said. “Those two entities have been crystal clear, and remain so at this juncture, that masks should be worn in schools, and those are the primary organizations we refer to in making these science-based decisions.”
The emergence of the delta variant and the increased prevalence of breakthrough infections in vaccinated people has certainly dampened some of the enthusiasm people were feeling earlier in the summer, but there will still be a marked difference between the start of this school year and the start of last school year. Mr. Nichols emphasized that all students in kindergarten through 12th grades will start the year in person, and added that the district does not plan to offer a remote option for parents who choose to keep their children home, unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” which will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, he said. Masks will be mandated for all students and staff indoors, but the social distancing requirements will remain at 3 feet, as opposed to the 6-foot guidance they dealt with for most of the last school year.
So far, school districts are not receiving the kind of up-to-date guidance from New York State that largely informed their decision making last year. Instead, Mr. Nichols said superintendents in the area have been in close contact with each other, and are waiting on a draft memorandum regarding reopening from the Suffolk County Department of Health, which Mr. Nichols said he expected to receive in the next few days.
“Hopefully, that will point us in a more definite direction,” he said.
The general expectation is that while there will be guidance issued from the county department of health and other agencies, there may not be as many mandates issued from the state, meaning there could potentially be some differences in COVID protocols from district to district. Just like the situation with Mashashimuet Park, it’s clear that parents are increasingly eager to have answers when it comes to what the third school year affected by COVID-19 will look like. Mr. Nichols scanned questions in the Zoom chat from parents wondering if regular testing of students and staff would still be required; if staff members would be required to get vaccinated; if students from the same grade but in different classes would be able to mingle outside. Mr. Nichols did not have definitive answers yet for most of those questions, although he did say that vaccine mandates are not currently being pursued for staff members.