LENOX — By popular demand, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School will offer a brief basketball season until March 19, joining most other public schools in the county that have adopted coronavirus pandemic safety protocols.
At a special meeting Thursday night, the School Committee voted unanimously to approve a plan by school leaders to use half of the middle and high school gymnasium for basketball. The gym has served as a classroom during hybrid instruction, but in-person attendance has been lower than expected.
Athletic director and math teacher David Pugh acknowledged that before the mid-February school vacation, he had many questions about safety. Now, he said, “I feel much better about offering athletics; it can be safe for our students. We’re at a different place now; we very much want our kids out there. I’ll do my best to make it happen.”
Students can participate, as they have been during Alpine and Nordic ski seasons, as long as they attend classes either remotely or in person, said Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell, who also is a coach.
Pugh observed that “coming off winter break, kids were in rough shape. We need to do everything we can to get them the possibility to do something outside of being in their home and on a computer,” Cogswell said. “Our kids really need it right now; our teachers need it, too.”
“As a school, we’ve been focused on the social and emotional well-being of our children,” he added. “We really had our hands tied with facility use. But, my word this week as an educator is ‘optimism.’”
Before the vote, Anthony Patella, the parent of a high school student, thanked school leaders and the committee for “the efforts you are all taking to keep our students safe, that is first and foremost.” He noted that other county high schools are allowing basketball, “and it now appears the season can be extended and is being done safely.”
He asked school officials to reevaluate their position, “which I believe you have an obligation to do. The disappointment on my children’s faces when they found out that all the other Berkshire County teams were playing was real; it was heart-wrenching.”
Representing the girls basketball program, student Sophie Patella said it has been difficult to watch other teams play “and us being the only team to not play. The fact that other programs have found a safe and effective way to play basketball and Lenox has still not given us a single opportunity to prove that our school can carry out these safety measures is saddening and disappointing.”
Citing the close bonds the Lenox team formed last year, Sophie said that “granting us permission to play, even if it was to practice or use half the court, would benefit the mental health of student-athletes. Sports gives students motivation to be productive, and during these times, mental health is challenging.”
Her brother, Luke Patella, a senior representing the boys basketball team, said that “it would mean so much to us if we are able to play together as a team once more.”
“Everyone would agree these are trying times,” he said. “It is confusing and contradictory when we, as students, are taught that staying active and playing sports are ways to improve our health and cope with stress, and then being denied the same things we are taught. It’s also an escape, and that’s something all students need. For some, it is the escape. Anything at all is better than nothing.”
School Committee member Francie Sorrentino, a cafeteria staffer at the middle and high school, said that “there are kids that are very upset, there are kids that need this.”
Expressing admiration and appreciation for the decisions made by interim Superintendent William Cameron, Principal Michael Knybel and Cogswell to keep students safe, Sorrentino suggested that “this is a small thing to ask. I think it’s time to listen to our kids. I do not want to create any animosity; I do not want to point any fingers; I don’t want these kids to think that just because they have tears that it’s going to go their way.”
If it’s not possible to join competition sanctioned by the [Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association], Sorrentino said, “we should open it up for fun, practice-style, for the same amount of time that the season runs.”
Knybel said that “a very reasonable plan” has been worked out to reconfigure the gym to accommodate basketball after classes end. He explained that in-school attendance has been below projections, so, “we will definitely be able to provide at least half the gym for both boys and girls basketball.”
Sorrentino’s motion to offer basketball until March 19 was adopted, 6-0, by the School Committee.
Nicole Patella, a parent and middle and high school staffer, voiced appreciation for the decision, acknowledging that “it’s a huge undertaking” to get the student-athletes back in the gym.
“I understand the commitment and what needs to be done,” she said.
The logistics of launching Fall II and spring sports seasons will be discussed during Monday’s remote School Committee meeting at 6:30 p.m. Also on the agenda is the reopening of Morris Elementary and the middle and high school.