From the onset of this pandemic, school leaders, elected officials, and even governors have faced impassioned questions from communities, parents, and students about school-based sports. Will the seasons be canceled? Will the kids be allowed to play? How can we get them out there being active?
Many who care about young people were reminded of how much students need physical activity. And the threat of no sports helped cast into relief the many benefits students derive from having a sound sports program in their lives. Even as school budgets tighten, I hope we won't give in to whatever calls come to cut school-based athletics.
South Burlington High School's student activities director Michael Jabour and a student-athlete reflect on the benefits of athletics, even when instruction is virtual.
At South Burlington High School in Vermont, where I'm the principal, athletics fits into our vision of school as a place that fosters a community outlook-bonding between students and staff members, for instance-as well as promotes individual talents. We want our students to be physically and mentally healthy as a baseline. We want them to learn to value improvement over winning and to practice perseverance and cooperation. When our school building was shut in March, Michael Jabour, the director of student activities, insisted we carry on as much of the athletics program (and the rest of our co-curricular activities) as possible-even though it would have to be done remotely.
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We often hear from students at our school that their coach is someone they can count on for support and encouragement. Coaches keep many athletes focused-not just on skills and games but on school and the larger goals in life. As students faced the disappointments and the isolation that school closure brought, Mike was adamant that coaching relationships needed to be maintained. Our superintendent, David Young, bought the argument, and coaches were paid their full stipend to continue their work with student-athletes.
Mike asked each head coach to check in weekly with team members via Zoom or Google Hangouts and come up with at-home workout plans. Some coaches supplemented the plans with video examples on social media and some held virtual live workouts-anything to make workouts or connecting with teammates easier.
Coaches got creative, one leaving softball equipment in a place where a student and a family member could retrieve it for practice, while other coaches made socially distant visits to seniors' homes to celebrate the conclusion of their four years in a sport. As restrictions on gatherings were eased in late spring, a few coaches were able to get their team members together for practice in small groups. The athletic trainer sent out a weekly email about health of mind, body, and soul and held virtual office hours.
Our school made clear that team-member participation was voluntary in recognition of the many different kinds of demands on students and their families. And there was some discouragement among coaches when, inevitably, not all team members showed up. But Mike assured the coaches-most of them teachers-that they were playing an important role in the lives of the students who did come.
Over the years, the sports stories dominating social-media feeds have shined a light on inappropriate, out-of-balance, and even corrupt conduct among the organizers of professional and college sports and, at times, the athletes themselves. And many elements of youth- and school-based athletics have been occasionally problematic.
But our experience this past spring presents a very different picture. Even in a time that required unprecedented changes, we were able to underscore the undeniable benefits of education-based athletics when done correctly.
In our program, we are conscious of teaching at least several life lessons: the importance of staying active and healthy, the rewards of a positive attitude and of effort, and the value of being part of a group that will help you adapt and overcome challenges. Our coaches are chosen as much for their ability to impart those lessons as for their sports skills. As difficult as the spring was, coaches had a chance to model these truths, and many students responded by showing their own strength and resilience.
To my mind, sports are worth the aggravation, the time, and even the cost-which, in most places, is a small percentage of the overall school budget. There are unreasonable parents, sure, but sports are one of the primary ways students learn how to dedicate themselves to the communities of which they are a part. And sports are an important way that a school serves students.
In my case, it's rarely a winning team that reminds me of the value of school-based sports. Sometimes the value is visible to many, but often it's not. It's the cross-country team wildly cheering on a teammate striving for a personal best as they finish a race in the back of the pack. It's a late-night phone call from a coach or a teammate to a guidance counselor sharing a concern about a student's wellbeing.
As the new school year starts at my school, the athletics program will require even more diligent attention than usual. Play will be limited and masked, and many of our standard ways of doing things will have to change, just as they did in the spring. Still, given the broad mission of U.S. public schools, I consider access to athletics critical for us and for others, including during a pandemic.
In my view, those who consider responding to a crisis by mothballing or eliminating school-based athletic programs are shortening the reach of schools. And they are doing so just when that reach needs to be longer.
Patrick Burke has been the principal of South Burlington High School since 2001. He has been named both Vermont's principal of the year and a National Association of Elementary School Principals' national distinguished principal. He recently served as the president of the Vermont Principals' Association.