The Katonah-Lewisboro School Board is expected to decide next week how—or perhaps whether—varsity sports will be played in a season dominated by hybrid learning and pandemic fears.

In KLSD, football and all junior varsity sports have already fallen to the coronavirus and girls swimming, lacking sufficient facilities, has been put on hold. But officials are putting in place plans for other fall teams to start interscholastic competition on Oct. 10. 

In Section 1, the governing body for interscholastic athletics in the lower Hudson Valley, at least one high school, Pawling, has canceled all fall sports; others are maintaining a full slate, including JV teams.  

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Most KLSD school board trustees—enough to shut down a varsity sports season—voiced concerns last week over the wisdom of competing with students from other schools and the risk the school’s athletes could pose not only to each other but also the community at large.

“This is life and death,” Trustee William Rifkin, a medical doctor, said. “People die from this disease. The kids bring it home, to the grandparents, to the uncles, to the sister, to the parents. This is a contagious, deadly disease.”

The pandemic has imposed, among other things, social-distancing restrictions as students returned to classrooms for the first time since March. Squeezed physically for classroom space, KLSD has had to divide students into A and B cohorts, each able to be in classrooms, separately, on two days each week and learn from home on the others.

Board President Marjorie Schiff found the notion of sports-as-usual, with students from different cohorts playing on the same team and competing against students from other schools “very confusing.”

“It really does feel at cross-purposes with the mindset that we had to bring to bear on how to provide education to kids. . . . It’s hard not to see some of this as being asked to just do things the way we did do things pre-pandemic.”

Schiff has applauded the benefits of fresh air and exercise. “We need to figure out how to provide athletic opportunity to as many kids as we can,” she said, but quickly added, “We just might not be able to do it in the same interscholastic sport manner that we’ve been accustomed to doing in the past.” 

In the end, no one formally proposed scuttling this fall’s interscholastic schedule, despite some two hours of worried discussion.

The board, which a year ago displayed its willingness to tackle hot-button issues by opening a debate on the appropriateness of John Jay’s revered Native American iconography, will consider varsity competition again on Oct. 8.

School Superintendent Andrew Selesnick has overseen the district’s wholesale conversion to a hybrid home-and-classroom education model in response to the coronavirus. After repeatedly emphasizing the need for fluid, day-to-day reaction to pandemic circumstances, he noted last week the complexities in re-introducing sports. “There is also not an obvious right way to move forward,” he said. “There is a complicated way to move forward.”

Statewide, football, volleyball and competitive cheer have all been postponed until next March 1. In Section 1, the governing body for interscholastic athletics in the lower Hudson Valley, at least one high school, Pawling, has canceled all fall sports; others are maintaining a full slate, including junior varsity teams teams. But JV and Modified teams in KLSD are “on pause” for fall. “We want to be sure we have space available on our fields to keep all athletes safe,” the district said in a statement.

The trustees’ discussion reflected the unsettled sports picture. “I’m really struggling with what the right thing to do is,” Julia Hadlock, the board’s vice president said of resuming interscholastic competition. Part of it seems, she said, “at cross-purposes with all the unbelievable work of our administrators and our custodial staff and our teachers and all the planning that went into the cohort-making and the two days a week [in classrooms]. It just seems we’re completely disregarding that.” 

Most board members noted, as Trustee Rory Burke put it, that “the real risk is to the community. That’s who we’re trying to protect.”

Trustee Liz Gereghty agreed, saying, “Ultimately, the risk is going to be spread across the entire community. This doesn’t seem like an equitable use of the school’s resources.”

Still, as Burke pointed out, “The risk doesn’t go down by not holding varsity or JV sports. They,” he said of the district’s young athletes, “are going to be playing sports anyway.”

Trustee Catharine Oestreicher, estimated tbat “hundreds of kids” play youth sports every weekend. “I would like to see us play sports, in whatever capacity that is,” she said. 

While according top priority to education, Oestreicher said, “I think we have to be mindful of mental health, which I think is also so extremely important to our students right now.”

Burke, for his part, said, “I could get behind [a vote for] no sports,” but insisted the JV should play if the varsity does.

Gereghty, worried about the interscholastic aspect of the competition, said, “Going around to other schools to have competitions . . . seems to me the exact wrong thing to do.”

The timing of the board’s concerns, so close to the fall season’s belated start, troubled Trustee Terrence Cheng, who wondered, “Can we really turn this car around at this moment? I don’t know. And I also don’t know whether that would be fair.”

Cheng asked whether there was “a way to use more-concrete data to help drive these decisions. Let’s say the varsity decision is out the gate and the next decision is about the junior varsity. How much data can we use?”

With the board confronting yet another charged issue in athletics, Alice Cronin, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources and instruction, said simply, “I don’t envy you.”

And athletic director Christian McCarthy, noting the loss of this year’ spring sports schedule, told the board an autumn repeat “would be a devastating blow to our upperclassmen, to lose two consecutive seasons.”

 “I can actually weigh in from a personal perspective,” he said, “because I live in Pawling,” the district that has canceled all sports. 

“I have a junior son who is the quarterback of the football team, one of the shooting guards on the basketball team. He’s not participating in sports this year, and I can tell you it was very, very difficult. . . . Last year my daughter was a senior lacrosse player, and she lost that year; my son lost his baseball season, so it has hit home.” 

Canceling interscholastic competition, VP Hadlock noted, might make it “really hard on us as individual board members to walk around in town knowing we’ve done something that has really upset 125 or 150 families. But I just feel like we have 800 other families to consider.”

Gereghty said scrapping the season would not sit well with her, either. “I love sports; I do,” she said. 

“But at the end of the day, I just come to the conclusion that until we can have students in school safely, five days a week, doing all of this for extracurriculars seems counter to what should be our core mission.”

— Additional reporting by Brian Marschhauser