The fall sports season is scheduled to begin on Oct. 1, marking the return of high school sports in Connecticut for the first time since winter state tournaments were cut short on March 9.
When sports return, Newington’s home games will be without fans, as the athletic department decided in an announcement on Monday that no spectators would be allowed at home games for the fall season, a decision athletic director Christopher Meyers said was weighed heavily before ultimately deciding that keeping attendance to players, coaches and officials would be the safest way to navigate through what will be the first crack at high school games in the state since the coronavirus outbreak last spring.
“As a district, we evaluated our locations and felt it would be best for the safety of our student-athletes, coaches and officials to make sure we limited any potential variables for exposure and risk,” Meyers said.
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s updated guidelines for fall sports included closing off indoor sports like girls volleyball and swimming to fans, but outdoor sports like soccer, cross country and field hockey would be subject to each local district, but keeping fans socially distanced and further away from the field of play was recommended. But Newington elected to eliminate any risk of exposure completely, under the motivation that whatever measure gives the school’s fall sports teams the best chance to finish an already shortened season should be implemented.
“There was a variety of discussions that we had,” Meyers said. “Obviously, it's a very difficult decision and not one that was taken lightly. But ultimately our goal is to provide a safe atmosphere and take into our account our students' welfare. We felt this was the easiest and most effective way to ensure the potential for them to finish their season and make it to the end, and make sure we're providing them with an environment to go and compete safely, as well as the students that are coming in from other towns. We're just limiting and restricting access inside the fences to coaches, players and officials.”
The school’s decision prompted a wide range of emotions through social media on Monday, with many angered at a decision they felt was unnecessary and far-reaching. But some parents of fall sports athletes understood the difficulty of such a decision, even if it means not being able to see their children in person while competing this fall.
“Is it ideal? Of course not,” said Sue Mullings, mother of Newington girls soccer’s All-New England senior Olivia Mullings. “But I do think everyone is doing what they can. As a senior and freshman parent, I am just happy that my girls are being given the opportunity to play this fall. Olivia lost her spring season completely…so the fact that she is getting some sort of a fall season for her last year of high school is something we are grateful for. The kids have been awesome in making sure they have their masks and following all the protocols that are in place. They are just happy to be able to play as a team.”
Meyers has seen the same diligence from Newington’s student-athletes since outdoor workouts began over the summer, and believed that effort deserved the same in return from the athletic department, which meant doing whatever was necessary to try and ensure the season wouldn’t be cut short.
“It's challenging, and it's a new environment for all of us,” Meyers said. “We're trying to handle it as respectfully but effectively as possible. We're just trying to limit those variables, and individuals coming from other towns adds another variable that we're trying to avoid. We know it's tough for parents and fans not to be able to go and cheer on their student-athletes, but on the flip side, our student-athletes who have done everything correctly and wore their masks and stayed socially distanced...they've done everything correct so we feel we owe it to them to give them the safest environment possible to complete the season.”
As for the parents that won’t be able to see their kids compete in person this year, alternate means are already in the works to try and give them a forum to watch the games. The booster club for the school’s boys and girls soccer teams is currently working on creating an option for parents and fans to live stream the games, which they hope to have in place in time for the teams’ first games next week.
“It does not replace being at the games, but it is an option to be able to still enjoy watching the kids play,” Mullings said. “If anything, covid has taught everyone to think creatively and produce different ideas to still support the athletic teams and the schools. It may not be what has been done in the past, but we are figuring out ways to still celebrate our athletes and especially our seniors.”
Meyers believes those seniors, and the rest of the student-athletes who will play in empty fields and gyms this fall, understand the decision and the thinking behind it, and if the season makes it to the finish line, this drastic measure will have been a worthwhile one.
“That conversation started on day one, getting the kids and coaches to understand that those small cohorts had a purpose,” Meyers said of the safety protocols that have been put in place since outdoor workouts began in July. “All of that began with the conversation that our goal is to do things correct and have an opportunity to compete at the high school level, and I think that same message comes from this decision as well.”