LENOX — There will be no Nordic or Alpine ski teams at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, at least for the next month.
That was the 5-1 decision by the School Committee on Monday, after an hour of impassioned discussion. The suspension of the outdoor winter sports season, which would have started come Monday, might be revisited at the committee’s next meeting, on Jan. 4.
“We all support our athletes, we all have an aching heart for our students in the midst of this pandemic,” Principal Michael Knybel said. “But, we still face the same problems we faced in the fall with outdoor sports, that we find it difficult to be able to keep true equity.”
The Millionaires are among the most storied and successful high school Nordic skiing programs in the state, producing two Olympian skiers — Patrick Weaver competed on the cross-country team in 1998 and 2002, and Laura Spector competed in the biathlon in 2010.
Directing his remarks at students attending the Zoom meeting, Knybel noted that the gym is being used as instructional space, eliminating basketball.
“Just because your passion is basketball, you can’t play,” he said, “but your friend can do something different because they’ve been raised on another sport.”
Emphasizing his priority for “fairness and consistency,” the principal noted that students without personal transportation to a ski area would be disadvantaged. So would those living in a home with others who have preexisting conditions, requiring “a tough choice as a teammate to bow out of any kind of athletic season.”
Knybel saluted student Noah Kirby, who was on the Zoom call, for an “incredible email with wonderful documentation,” but it included the Bousquet ski area’s health protocols, which the principal described as less stringent than the school’s. Bousquet is the site for the Alpine ski team.
“I am not in favor in pursuing sports for the winter season at this time,” Knybel declared, subject to reevaluation next month.
Athletic Director David Pugh agreed, though he cited the “immeasurable value” of athletics and other nonacademic activities “greatly missed by students, parents and coaches.” A curtailed winter season is under consideration by area high schools for mid-January, he added, and all athletic directors in the county have agreed to not have any competitions until that time.
But, informal coaching is available, as well as clubs that could start immediately.
“It’s my hope that, in January, we can make a decision for a short season,” Pugh said, adding that a “fall 2” season for soccer, volleyball and cross-country running remains under consideration for early spring.
“All coaches are heroically willing to coach their kids right now,” Pugh said.
“The problem is getting kids there on an equitable basis, in a safe way, how to use bathrooms, what do you do when you’re waiting for a bus? It’s a very social event, very difficult to keep people away from each other before and after the event.”
Pugh, chairman of the math department at the school, applauded interim Superintendent William Cameron “for putting safety above everything else. … We’re taking a timeout, and it’s OK to stop and let’s see. I pray the data will be better so we can have seasons, all four of them, for our students.”
Addressing School Committee members, Pugh said, “I beg you, let’s take a timeout from athletics, as much as it hurts. As a school, I cannot assure you with 100 percent confidence that students can get to and from events safely.”
Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell, also a basketball coach, pointed out that other high schools in the area, including Pittsfield and Taconic highs, are not considering competitive winter sports until Jan. 19 at the earliest.
Sophomore Kirby, a downhill skier, suggested that “old rules are being thrown out the window” because of the coronavirus pandemic, and asserted that “you can’t compare all the sports; you have to consider Alpine skiing by itself.” He also said the elimination of fans, specifically parents, from attending competitions should not be an impediment.
“Just have the parents wait in the parking lot,” Kirby said.
School Committee Vice Chairman Robert Munch presented a motion to begin skiing as a winter sport as soon as possible.
“It’s about more than the competition,” he emphasized. “It’s about mental well-being, getting outside; getting exercise is key in the darker days of winter. The practice, having something to look forward every day, is as important as the actual competition.”
But, Cameron noted that, under the hybrid model, half the high school students attend class in the morning, making it difficult to get transportation to midafternoon ski practice with the afternoon group of participating students.
“There’s two ways to look at safety: the mental health aspect, which can be a very big concern, as well as the COVID-19,” Munch said. “I’m feeling more like the mental health issues, getting the kids out doing something, outweigh the risks of COVID-19, if we can keep up the separation and distancing. I don’t think we should let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
“Anything we can do to get the kids outside is probably better for them than staying inside on their devices for a long winter,” he said. “Parents know their kids best; they can decide, and then the Lenox Public Schools don’t have to play the overriding role. We may be overreaching a bit.”