Wilmington School Committee Asks Middlesex League To Reconsider Spectator Ban For Winter Sports

WILMINGTON, MA — Last week, the Wilmington School Committee unanimously approved the high school’s full participation in winter sports under the guidelines and modifications outlined by the MIAA, EEA, DESE, and additional direction voted on by the Middlesex League Athletic Directors.

The winter sports season, which will consist of Boys Basketball, Girls Basketball, Boys Hockey, Girls Hockey, and Swim & Dive, begins on December 14, with games starting January 2. Wrestling and Cheerleading, traditionally held in the Winter, have been moved to the Spring (April 26-July 3). Girls Indoor Track and Boys Indoor Track have been to the “floating season” (February 22-April 25).

While supportive of winter athletics, the School Committee was concerned over the Middlesex League’s recent decision to ban spectators at all games this winter despite state regulations allowing them.

Wilmington High School Athletic Director Mia Muzio noted the Middlesex League superintendents, principals, and athletic directors were in “full agreement” on a spectator ban.

In response to a question from School Committee member MJ Byrnes asking for more clarification over the rationale for disallowing spectators, Muzio indicated there were a lot of conversations with Superintendents, Principals, and Athletic Directors surrounding the topic.

“The main priority is allowing the student athletes to play. The plan is to live stream as many games as possible. We’re looking at that as a good compromise. And we’re dealing with indoor facilities and the limitations on that,” said Muzio. “We came together as a group at all three levels and the consensus seemed to be that we thought the main priority is getting kids out there to play and the spectator piece comes second.”

Muzio said the group of athletic directors and school administrators decided to err on the side of caution, especially during the holidays and while the area’s COVID numbers are surging.

“People say they’ll stay six feet apart and they will have their mask on, but on very often occasions, everyone kind of pools together in one area. That was part of the consideration. It’s a lot of monitor as well,” added Muzio, who noted all the Middlesex League schools are trying to remain consistent with their rules and regulations.

“Moving indoors adds a whole different element than the [fall season],” agreed Superintendent Glenn Brand. “Some of my Middlesex superintendent colleagues’ Board of Health Directors had concerns…. Some felt there’s going to be enough to contend with and be concerned about as it relates to the athletes that, unfortunately, the spectator piece was not considered to be a priority under the circumstances. I don’t know where that lies going forward. I’m not sure there will be a revisiting of that or not.”

School Committee members still questioned the spectator ban decision.

“It seems odd to me that having a relatively small number of spectators, even if it’s limited to 1 or 2 per player, in some of these large gyms or arenas doesn’t seem unreasonable,” said School Committee Vice Chair David Ragsdale. “I don’t want to be second guessing, but I think there’s reasonable questions as to why the sports are deemed safe enough to play in the first place, yet adding 1 spectator for the athletes to watch is considered unreasonable.”

“I appreciate the hard work and thought. I agree the #1 priority is allowing the athletes to play, but I don’t see why we can’t allow 1-2 parents to attend,” agreed School Committee member Jo Newhouse. “For some students, this will be the last time they step onto a basketball court or a hockey rink. Live streaming is not the same. I have a child who plays hockey. Watching it on TV when you’re home — half of the time you can’t even tell if it’s your child playing or not…. I’d like to see the Middlesex League reconsider their vote to give parents 1-2 badges to attend. Some of these places hold thousands of people. We’ll be well under the 40% capacity.”

School Committee Chair Jennifer Bryson suggested that, if safe to do so, senior parents should be prioritized and allowed a badge to enter the games. She noted there’s been quite a bit of pushback from parents regarding the spectator ban and that the Middlesex League should try to “listen to what the families are saying.”

“I, too, hope that given this input, there will be some more discussions,” School Committee member Steve Bjork told Muzio and Brand.

It would not be surprising if there was similar feedback in other districts. We’ll keep you updated,” Brand told the Committee.

Earlier in the meeting, Matt Savage, the parent of a WHS senior hockey player, spoke to the issue during Public Comments, noting he was “saddened” to hear the news and “upset” that parents weren’t allowed a public forum prior to the decision being made.

“The Middlesex League is comprised of 12 teams. Of 12 teams, there’s only 1 rink (Lexington) that doesn’t allow spectators for youth hockey games. 5 of the rinks allow 1 spectator. The remaining 5 allow at least 2 spectators,” explained Savage. “With high school rosters limited to 20 players, at most, there’d be 40-80 spectators at the rinks.”

“Most rinks in Middlesex League have seating capacities of at least 1,000 spectators, so the capacity would only be between 4 and 8%,” continued Savage. With strict protocols in place –spectator spacing, contact tracing, temperature check, masking wearing, etc. — there’s a very limited risk of exposure.”

Savage noted that most, if not all, high school players are already playing in fall leagues to prepare for the season. They’re already playing at these rinks, and other rinks, that are allowing spectators.

“This rule doesn’t follow any scientific or statistical guidance given by the state or MIAA,” stressed Savage. “The decision made by the Middlesex League doesn’t make much sense at all.”

Both the MIAA and EEA allows for spectators. Under the EEA, the building’s 50% maximum capacity can’t be exceeded, according to Savage. For most Middlesex League rinks, that would be at least 500 people. If 1-2 parents were allowed in, that would account for just 40-80 spectators.

Savage said parents he’s spoke with are willing to do “whatever is needed to be done” for them to be there, including buying their own thermometers or ensuring people sign in for contact tracing. He noted an online petition was being put together as well.

“My son has 10 games left in his hockey career,” said Savage. “So much has already been taken from these seniors… To take away the opportunity to share their last chance in athletics with their parents is absolutely unconscionable.”

Savage noted parents are deeply devoted to their children’s hockey careers, watching them rise from ‘Learn To Skate’ programs to ‘Learn To Play’ programs to youth hockey to high school teams. Parents drove their kids to 6am practices and 9pm games, up the road in Ristuccia and as far away as New York. They’ve seen the first goals, the big wins, and the heartbreaking losses. He noted many parents volunteered as coaches, board members, and boosters, as well as hosted team dinners.

“We won’t let this rest,” said Savage. “There’s no reason why parents cannot see their children play high school sports. Please, please reconsider this.”

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