Like so many of his colleagues, Shepherd Hill athletic director Jim Scanlon has been anxiously awaiting and diligently tracking the town-by-town COVID-19 metrics released by the state each week.
On Wednesday night, he received unwelcome news as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health moved Dudley, where the regional school is located, into the red — or highest risk — category, meaning it had an average of more than eight coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents in the last 14 days.
The official number was 8.1, so the minimum to enter red. Charlton, which is also served by Shepherd Hil, checked in at 3.6, which is the green — or lowest risk — category.
“We saw the numbers tracking up … and obviously we’re in kind of in a unique position being a regional school district because we’re looking at both Dudley and Charlton,” Scanlon said. “But it all takes is one community.”
This Connecticut-border community of 12,000 was one of eight cities or towns in Central Massachusetts to find itself in the red, joined by fellow newcomers Hudson (10.9), Leicester (8.9), Southboro (13.2), Southbridge (8.9), and Webster (8.7) along with holdovers Marlboro (12.0) and Worcester (10.0).
Whether high school athletics are paused or canceled in these communities — with the exception of Marlboro, which resumed in-person athletics Monday, and Worcester, which canceled on Thursday — is up to local heath and school officials.
Not long after the twice-delayed fall sports season got underway Sept. 18, the nine chairs of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s District Athletic Committees met twice to address the matter of what should be done if a school district goes red.
Central Mass. is represented by Nipmuc Regional AD Chris Schmidt from District 2 and Shrewsbury High AD Jay Costa from District 3.
It was determined that initial “red status alone does not constitute a pause in participation by a member school.”
A decision was made, keeping in line with Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines, that three consecutive weeks of metrics should be considered in addition to “consultation with and with permission of the local department of health.”
“I think the three-week data (base) is to not have school districts or anyone panic, is my opinion,” Costa said. “I think they need to evaluate the data and that’s why the district athletic chairs said, ‘Hey, that should be an issue for the local department of health and school superintendent.’ Because there could be different reasons for why a district is red.”
Indeed, Tyngsboro was in the red for the last two weeks of September before dropping back to yellow, or moderate risk. The spike was reportedly caused by more than a third of weekly cases occurring in the same household.
Meanwhile, Marlboro High returned to in-person athletics on Monday after going to virtual workouts during a week-long break taken out of precaution after, per the MetroWest Daily News, two students tested positive for COVID-19.
“So we’re back in athletics and playing games, so it’s awesome for the kids,” Panthers AD Jeff Rudzinsky said. “From all of the metrics you look at with the kids being in school is great and them being on the athletic fields is great. It’s a win-win for everybody as long as we can keep the kids safe.”
No matter the location or size of the school district, administrators, athletic directors, coaches and athletes across CMass have emphasized safety above all else to allow cross-country, field hockey, golf, and soccer to have their respective seasons, albeit shortened ones that are devoid of regional and state tournaments.
(Football and girls’ volleyball, which are both high-risk sports, have been moved to a fall II season scheduled to begin in late February.)
“We’ve put in a lot of work to get ourselves up to par in terms of mitigation strategies and trying to reduce risk,” Scanlon said. “But at this point now we’re just waiting for whatever guidance is from local health agents. Whether they feel we should do something differently.
“We fully intend to continue with athletics until we hear otherwise, but we certainly are going to have conversations with each of our teams and all of our coaches to really hammer home those risk-mitigation strategies to make sure we are following those techniques and doing our part to try to stop this from spreading any further.”
All told, there were 40 communities in the state in the red, up from 23 the previous week.
In addition to Tyngsboro, Auburn, Clinton, Leominster, Littleton, Northboro, Northbridge, Oxford, Rutland, Shrewsbury, Spencer, Sutton, and Uxbridge are one step below red in the yellow (4-8 cases per 100,000).
—Contact Rich Garven at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RichGarvenTG.
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