OSWEGO — The reinstatement of sports at Oswego city schools continues to stoke controversy among community members, as administrators and Board of Education members propose plans to resume athletic programs adapted to new health and safety regulations.
Buccaneer varsity cheerleaders, hockey players and basketballers are now all practicing en route to their first official competition of the season, following an announcement from the Oswego City School District (OCSD) Board of Education last week that reinstated “high risk sports” for the imminent winter season. The “high risk” designation, per state regulations, includes cheer, hockey, basketball and wrestling and the New York Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) requires teams to hold six practice sessions prior to any competition.
Student athletes participating in winter activities deemed “high risk” had not suited up for the Buccaneers since the end of their 2020 season, when the rise of COVID-19 cases mobilized some state governments to pause sporting events — per recommendations from major health organizations — to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Plans for reinstatement for that group of athletic programs had been in the works since Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the green light on Jan. 22, according to OCSD Superintendent Dr. Mathis Calvin III. The Oswego County Health Department helped craft a plan for the school district to reinstate varsity basketball, hockey, and cheer with recommendations that include: following the state’s social distancing and masking regulations, barring entrance to the events for spectators, mask requirements for athletes on the court, discouraging carpooling and overnight traveling, as well as ruling out traveling for out of state competition purposes.
Current infection rates among students and staff in the district are one of the main factors behind the slow reinstatement of athletic programs, according to Calvin, who noted OCSD has one of the three highest number of positive cases in the county. As of early February, Calvin said the district has had 105 positive cases registered among students and staff. NYSDOH has also placed 320 positive cases in quarantine, according to district data, while OCSD has also had to manage 259 cases where students or staff exhibited COVID-19 symptoms or traveled out of state and were forced to quarantine.
The superintendent has recommended the district closely monitor the performance, as well as health and safety measures during varsity contests, in order to further evaluate reinstating JV and modified categories. On Tuesday Calvin announced some new proposals to offer more athletic activities at multiple levels.
“We would like to offer some intramural opportunities at the intramural levels at Oswego Middle School,” Calvin said. “We believe we can run those for a couple of weeks and do a nice job for our students, doing so really safely.”
Student athletes playing JV sports could also see a return to conditioning sessions, according to Calvin, who proposed one-to-two-week strengthening workshops starting in March.
A subject of discussion during the public comment section of Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting centered around girls varsity basketball coach Joe Babcock, whose resolution was not voted on by the board when it came time to reinstate coaches for the upcoming winter season of “high risk” sports.
Newly elected board member Pamela Dowd made a motion to pull Babcock’s reinstatement resolution from the bundle of resolutions that would approve returning coaches. An absence of discussion on the board’s behalf sent community members into heated discussions over social media, which included posts directing community members to the public comment submission page for OCSD.
After more than a dozen comments from community members asking for further inquiries into why the resolution was pulled, the board decided to address the situation and vote on the resolution to bring Babcock back for the upcoming season. The resolution passed via a 4-2 vote, with Dowd and Board President Heather DelConte opposing it.
DelConte explained the board’s position to pull the resolution.
“I just want to make it very clear that the resolution was removed last time, but there was never anyone fired,” DelConte said, addressing particular complaints expressed during public comment regarding Babcock’s status of employment. “That never happened. It was removed for reasons of investigating that particular position making sure we made the best decision possible.”
Babcock led the Bucs to an 8-13 record during his first season coaching varsity girls basketball. Previously, he had spent a couple of seasons coaching their JV counterpart.
In the board’s review of the position, DelConte said the girls basketball program must be more attuned to its student-athletes.
“The program has been plagued for several years with declining numbers and serious issues that undermine the mental and emotional wellbeing of our athletes,” she said. “I am personally looking for a hero for this program and a coach who has the skillset and experience to reverse that trend.”
Despite the recent meeting, some community members say they are still seeking more transparency from the board when related to personnel moves.
“They should be more transparent,” said Jen Losurdo, of Oswego, who wrote into the public comment section on Tuesday’s meeting. “They should think of the kids and how they would react to a decision like this, how this would affect them, instead of taking matters in their own hands.”
Losurdo added she thinks the community is tightly knit and demands to hear further discussion behind their decisions.
“We are a community,” she said. “We stand behind each other when it comes to our youth here. We need to make it better for them and make it so they want to stay here. I think when something like this comes up again, the board needs to hear our comments before making any decisions behind peoples back.”
Offering further context, DelConte closed the meeting by noting there are “legal obligations” behind publicizing personnel moves.
“Where we may not be able to speak to the specifics of every decision, based on legal obligations, we rest in the understanding that although a self-motivated gong may be resounding in the halls of social media, or opinion editorials, our decisions come from a place of personal conviction, enhanced by a commitment to listen,” she said.
With the board meetings and resolutions in the rearview mirror, Babcock is moving forward.
“I am looking forward to restoring the girls basketball program back to one of the best in section 3,” he said in a statement issued to The Palladium-Times.
The team will open their season against Central Square on Feb. 18 at Paul V. Moore Gymnasium.