Parents revolt as COVID-19 concerns cancel winter sports at Haverhill High, Whittier Regional

Courtesy photoHaverhill High School student-athletes rally in front of City Hall Sunday in support of allowing a winter sports season to happen.

HAVERHILL — Parents of students at Haverhill High and Whittier Regional High are angry about the cancellation of winter sports at both schools.

It appears the decision by Whittier officials is final, but Haverhill High parents have a chance Tuesday night to argue against the winter season being canceled.

On Thursday of last week, the Haverhill School Committee canceled most classroom learning until mid-January due to an increase in COVID-19 cases across the city and in the school system, with many teachers and students quarantined. The committee also canceled winter sports and other after-school student activities in a decision that some parents say was rushed.

It has resulted in a backlash from parents who bombarded School Committee members and Mayor James Fiorentini with emails the following day and over the weekend, saying they want winter sports to happen.

In response, School Superintendent Margaret Marotta, Athletic Director Tom O'Brien and Haverhill High Principal Glenn Burns told parents on Friday that the School Committee will hold a special remote meeting on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. to discuss winter sports, as well as Junior ROTC and other after-school activities that were canceled last week.

At the other high school in Haverhill, Whittier Regional Superintendent Maureen Lynch called off winter sports last week — a decision that was difficult to make, she said. That decision has angered parents of Whittier student-athletes.

Lynch said she conferred with local health officials, school administrators and Whittier School Committee members, and also looked at data which shows five of the 11 communities that send students to Whittier are in the high-risk red zone for COVID-19 and four are in the moderate-risk yellow zone. Lynch said Whittier will not offer winter sports because of the rise in virus cases locally and across the region.

Whittier parent Brian Montejunas of Groveland, whose son Connor is a senior at Whittier and captain of the Amesbury/Whittier boys hockey team, sent a letter to the Whittier School Committee urging school officials to allow winter sports to go on. He said his letter was read aloud at last week's committee meeting, but that no discussion about the letter or winter sports followed.

"As we all know sports are much more than just students participating in athletics," his letter said. "Sports builds character, teaches team work, teaches how to deal with adversity and success. If the winter sports season is canceled this will not only end the season for the Whittier hockey players but could also end the season for Amesbury too because they may not be able to provide enough players for a varsity team.

"Our concern is that parents at other schools have been able to speak out but we were not given that option," he said. 

Lynch said that she and Whittier Principal Chris Laganas spoke last week with parents who wanted the winter sports season to happen.

"I think parents did have a voice, but ultimately I have to look at all the data and make the best decision for staff and students," Lynch said. "Parents want winter athletics and so do we, but I have to keep the focus on returning our kids and keeping them in school. I need to get these kids ready for the work force."

Hillie parents ready to fight

Haverhill High parents are preparing to have their say at Tuesday night's School Committee meeting.

Samantha Cerasuolo is vice president of the Haverhill middle school travel basketball program. Her youngest daughter is a freshman at Haverhill High and was able to play junior varsity volleyball during the fall season. Cerasuolo said she emailed the School Committee and the mayor to express her frustration at the decision to cancel winter sports.

"The decision was not given the attention it warrants," she said. "Several committee members emailed me back saying they understood our point of view. I'm thrilled they were open to having this meeting (Tuesday night)."

Cerasuolo said the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Merrimack Valley Conference, of which Haverhill High is a member, devised a plan to allow modified sports in a safe environment for the winter season.

"Our kids were super excited about having tryouts starting on Monday," she said. "Then the School Committee canceled sports without much of a discussion. If it's not going to be safe to have winter sports then I don't want to do it, but I'd at least like to have a chance to discuss it."

Support for winter sports among parents of Haverhill High School students spread like wildfire over the weekend.

"The way they canceled winter sports came as a shock to parents and students," said parent John Jeffries of Haverhill. "My son Evan is a senior on the hockey team and now the entire team is on hold. Most of these kids are working at grocery stores, at gas stations and at restaurants where they are exposed to the virus, and now they are not allowed to play because of the same virus they are exposed to on a daily basis? It makes no sense at all."

Senior Cullen Simes, captain of the Hillie varsity hockey team, works at Market Basket in Westgate Plaza. He said hockey is more than a sport.

"We've built a community ... a family," he said. "We played in the fall for the Valley Hockey League and there wasn't a single case of the virus over a three-month period. We followed all protocols. Removing sports at this time is going to take a mental toll on student athletes."

In a letter sent Sunday to the mayor and School Committee, parents said their children are under "incredible stress" and have suffered the brunt of decisions being made due to the pandemic. The letter was accompanied by the signatures of more than 300 parents and students.

"They (students) have missed out on high school events all members of the School Committee can fondly remember, like sports banquets, socials, homecoming and senior nights to celebrate with families, and many more quintessential activities," the letter said. "These are unforgettable moments in a young adult’s life and they have been denied them all. It’s beyond tragic."

The letter goes on to say athletics are the one way students can endure disruptions caused by the pandemic and have some sense of normalcy because "sports provide emotional and physical benefits that can’t be denied. Most parents will tell you, their children have said 'if I can play (name a sport), I can deal with this.'"

Haverhill High student athletes, including those on the hockey team, basketball team and gymnastic teams, held a rally in front of City Hall on Sunday afternoon in support of winter sports. 

School work over sports

At Whittier Regional, Superintendent Lynch said students need to be in their shops to prepare for careers in their chosen fields, and that it is impossible to reproduce hands-on skills learning when COVID-19 concerns force students to stay home. She said she won't allow the potential spread of the virus through sports to jeopardize students' hands-on learning.

"These decisions aren't made in a vacuum or made easily," said Lynch, who pointed out that North Andover announced on Friday that it was transitioning its high school from the hybrid learning model to fully remote after the discovery that four COVID-19 cases were related to the North Andover Youth Hockey team, with more test results pending.

North Andover High had 10 additional cases of the virus, along with 80 people identified as close contacts who are required to quarantine, school officials there said.

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