TEWKSBURY – Last Thursday, the superintendents of each of the Merrimack Valley Conference schools sent out a joint press release stating that all Fall-I sports — including soccer, field hockey and volleyball — would not take place for the following seven days due to the fact that seven of the eleven schools in the conference were identified as being "in the red", meaning their COVID-19 numbers had escalated at a significant rate.
The other two sports for the Fall-I season golf and cross-country were allowed to continue. Football, cheerleading, swimming and unified basketball had already been moved to the Fall-2 season, which takes place at the end of February of 2021.
"While DESE guidance indicates that we should not make decisions about educational learning models until we examine multiple weeks of data, this recent increase of cases gives us pause for concern in regard to interscholastic competitions as they mix cohorts of students from multiple communities.
“Simply put, we want to proceed cautiously in order to not put our students, their families, or our communities at higher risk until we know more about the trajectory of the virus in our area."
The Town Crier waited until Monday afternoon to reach out to TMHS Athletic Director Ron Drouin so he would have new information about the situation, which he did. Before he got into that new information, he gave a reflection on that decision made last week.
"The superintendents got together and felt like a one-week pause to see who comes in and out of the 'red'. We obviously have to would work out what would be appropriate for the rectangle sports, volleyball, field hockey and the two soccers," he said. "Golf and cross-country where the courses are over a little more than three miles long, well with cross-country, and people can be spread out (can be run efficiently). We are doing different waves of runners with cross-country — so schools run in different waves and we expanded the finish line and we have some other protocols with that sport.
"In golf right now our kids are going out in foursomes — Tewksbury sends out four, Billerica sends out four, Central Catholic sends out four and then Tewksbury sends out another four and so on. Our kids are playing together, they are wearing masks on the course, they are walking so they are socially distancing themselves and the coaches are handing out scorecards using gloves. They are also wearing masks on the practice greens. With those two points, the league as a whole felt we could keep them socially distant and we're in a little bit better place to execute those sports safely.
"That being said, I spoke to my coaches (on Monday) and told them that we are on pause through Wednesday, but we anticipate getting a new schedule on Thursday hopefully by the early afternoon, and anticipate playing games on Saturday. A couple of meetings still need to take place but the plans as of now (Monday afternoon) is to play games on Saturday. We have our fingers crossed that we don't show up in the red and we can go from there."
Drouin explained that a new schedule will come out because Haverhill has been shut down from soccer, field hockey and volleyball for the next three weeks.
"Haverhill is out for three weeks. Their Board of Health shut them down. They can run cross-country and they can play golf, but the other sports where there is some contact, those have been shut down," he said.
One of Drouin's duties within the MVC is being the schedule-maker, so he has been hands-on or glued to this situation since the get-go. He will now be making his third set of schedules.
"It's been crazy. A lot of my (athletic director) colleagues about six or eight weeks ago said that they wanted a seven week schedule because we were going to play seven weeks," he said. "I provided them with a seven week schedule. I said to them that I'm not trying to be a 'knowologist', that's not what I'm trying to be, but I said to them that we should do everything in two week blocks because this is going to change every day and to really lay out anything more than a couple of weeks is crazy. We are going to end of creating a lot more extra work for ourselves because these things are going to happen. I'm sorry that I was right, I wish I wasn't right and I wish I was wrong.
"There's so many moving parts and our league is so different than any other league and it just is. We have big inner-city schools and we also have smaller towns. There's not a lot of leagues that are rolling major inner-cities like Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill and Methuen and a lot of smaller suburban communities like Tewksbury, Billerica, Dracut and Chelmsford.
“We have a wide variety of student-athletes in our league and we have a wide variety of communities. With that wide variety we have a wide variety of problems and different situations that you have to deal with day-in and day-out."
Like any school administrator, principal, teacher and basically any adults overseeing the health of many students or young adults, certainly it can be daunting and the stress, anxiety and nerves can take a toll. Drouin was asked how he is personally handling it all.
"I'm trying to be as upbeat as I can be," he said. "I'm worried about our coaches, I'm worried about our kids. Our kids are passionate about wanting to play and for the most part they are 16 and 17-years-old and they think they are invisible. Our coaches give a good effort, they just care and our coaches want to provide the best product they can for our kids. I'm worried about them. I try to check in on them and make sure that they are doing well.
(As for me) I'll figure it out and I'll roll with the punches. (My main priority is) I want to make sure that the people and the coaches who are on the frontlines dealing with our kids every single day, are not only making sure that are kids are in a good place but that these coaches and people are also in a good place themselves. I'm worried about all of that — there's so many different layers.
"We have had great support from our nurse Kelly Constantino, our athletic trainer Chris Mahanna, who have both done an outstanding job. I thought Fran Cusick and Peter Fortunato put on an excellent cross-country meet on Friday. I really, really appreciate the fans and the people who showed up for the meet and were extremely respectful with mask wearing and not congregating near the finish line and things like that to make it work.
“All of those things make it a little bit easier and the last thing I want to do is go to an event and enter a confrontation."