To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live our lives is an understatement. The added safety measures implemented by Belmont Hill and Winsor have transformed the way that students learn, interact with community members, and use technology. However, one of the largest challenges of the new hybrid schedule is playing sports. In the fall, both schools held biweekly in-person practices, but teams were unable to compete against other schools until very recently. Now, as we near Thanksgiving break, questions about the start of the winter sports season are arising. Since each school faces different obstacles in creating an optimal athletic environment — with Winsor being partly virtual and having some athletic facilities off-campus, and Belmont Hill working to accommodate a large number of signups — each school has had to adapt differently. Although the 2020-2021 winter season will admittedly look different for both schools, Belmont Hill and Winsor have confidence that their respective athletic directors, Mr. Tahan and Ms. Granese, will provide athletes with safe, fun, and competitive opportunities.
Throughout the fall and winter season, the Independent School League (ISL) has gradually modified restrictions to accommodate more opportunities for interscholastic competition. During the fall season, such competitions included modified scrimmages for varsity teams in Football, Soccer, and Cross Country. However, the winter season inherently provides different challenges, as in contrast to the fall season, the majority of winter sports are indoors, making it harder to prevent the spread of air particles. Understanding these challenges, the heads of ISL schools released a statement prior to the conclusion of the fall season, ensuring that, “the health and safety of our communities [continue] to be at the forefront of our planning.”
As many ISL schools are either boarding or do not plan on returning to school following Thanksgiving break, interscholastic athletic competition will likely not begin consistently until after winter break. Due to this lack of games prior to winter break, as well as in an attempt to emphasize the necessity for safe and fun competition, the ISL, “will not offer the traditional full slate of league games this winter, nor will we confer league championships or awards.” Instead, each ISL school will make individual decisions of whether winter athletic competition is practical and safe.
Belmont Hill will officially begin winter athletics on the first day back from Thanksgiving Break on December 3rd with a total of seven offerings: alpine skiing, nordic skiing, squash, hockey, basketball, strength and conditioning, and wrestling training and conditioning. Modifications will be made to nearly all these sports, such as the requirement of masks and social distancing during breaks. Similar to the fall season, Belmont Hill will divide up days for athletic practices, with upper school sports meeting on Mondays and Thursdays, and middle school sports meeting on Tuesdays and Fridays. Additional practices for these sports will be offered on Saturdays, and virtual “boot camps” will be offered on Wednesdays. Throughout all these sports, an emphasis will be placed on improving technique as opposed to close-contact drills and scrimmages in order to maintain COVID guidelines.
In addition to the fall precautions, Belmont Hill will make a few further changes to accommodate winter sports. In order to be able to minimize exposure, athletes will depart to the Jordan Athletic Center in times scattered by sport and enter the building through different entrances. Additionally, Belmont Hill athletes will not use locker rooms as normal. One other modification is that during the winter season, the advisory time allotted during the academic day will be shortened to allow for more time for sports to convene. Finally, the weight room will be available only for a limited number of strength and conditioning athletes.
Nevertheless, despite these modifications, the entire body of Belmont Hill athletes are ecstatic for the winter season. Belmont Hill Head of School Mr. Schneider announced earlier that there was an immense number of signups for the winter season: “Our initial inquiries yielded 78 athletic waiver requests in the Upper School grades and only one in the Middle School Grades.” While this large participation, especially in sports such as squash, basketball, and strength and conditioning, may cause those sports to have to meet less frequently, it certainly demonstrates the great enthusiasm held by Belmont Hill athletes for the winter season.
While Winsor’s winter sports will certainly look different from previous years, Ms. Granese is encouraging all athletes to stay positive. Team meetings will start on December 2, right after Thanksgiving break. Just like in the fall, “the plan is to start with one thing, and then slowly expand to something else,” Ms. Granese said. All of the usual winter sports, including ice hockey, basketball, swimming, squash, and crew winter training will happen in some form or another. In terms of schedule, teams will be following a hybrid model with two days of Zoom practices, Wednesday Zoom workouts, and two days of in-person practices. Although transportation has been more difficult to arrange due to the social distancing guidelines, Winsor is planning on using buses because “there can be up to 23 people per bus.” In the past, larger teams such as Varsity Ice Hockey and Varsity Swimming have exceeded this number of team members. Now that the Upper School and Lower School students are on-campus on different days of the week, transportation by bus is now feasible.
As COVID-19 cases rise and schools learn more about what actions are most effective, the Eastern Independent League (EIL) is constantly changing its guidelines. Ms. Granese and the coaches “have been attending a lot of AD meetings and NEPSAC meetings.” Through these meetings, they determined that games and scrimmages will not be held until February at the earliest. Also, Winsor is no longer allowed to compete against schools from out of state, so their most likely opponents will be Dana Hall, NCDS, and Beaver. While having fewer games is not ideal, Winsor is in better shape than other schools. According to Ms. Granese, “Most of the EIL schools are closing down and not starting their winter sports until January.
Each sport has its own set of challenges and new adaptations this year. The biggest difference between the fall season and the winter season is that all winter sport offerings happen indoors. “When you think about how much more space we had outdoors, it’s a big change. Indoor options are much smaller,” noted Ms. Granese. Thus, it is imperative that athletes continue to maintain their distance indoors to protect themselves and each other. One major setback for swimming is the fact that Simmons is not renting out their pool. Ms. Granese is “still reaching out to get some pool time at other places, but it’s been a challenge. We are even looking for weekend pool time.” However, even if the swim teams are unable to get in the water, they will definitely do dryland practices and Zoom fitness. The challenge for the squash team is that, for now, only one student can be on a court at a time. Ms. Granese is unsure “if squash will have games, but for now, they will just have practices.” Finally, the hockey team will not be able to use the locker rooms at the Steriti Ice Arena, but the rink staff will set up chairs around the rink for players to use for gear. To further protect students, “everyone will get a personal cleaning kit for their bag… [and] the focus for hockey practices will be more power skating and individual stick and puck drills.” Fortunately for basketball players, the Winsor gym will be open for the entire season. However, players will need to stay masked and remain six feet apart as much as possible.
When asked about sports returning to “normal” in the near future, Ms. Granese replied, “I wish I had a crystal ball! I’m hopeful that maybe it will be normal by the spring, but everything depends on COVID.” There is no doubt that this winter season will be filled with uncertainty, concern, and a lot of trial and error. But sports continue to be one of the most beloved and celebrated aspects of student life. As usual, Ms. Granese is dedicated to making the season, as novel as it is, the best it can possibly be. “I never thought we’d get to play games this fall, but look at what we got to do. I think students appreciated just getting out to practice in the fall, and then we had UTL, where we could compete against each other, and now to actually compete against other schools– people are ecstatic.”
The EIL and ISL ended up following similar guidelines in the fall, although Belmont Hill started having games the weekend before Winsor did, competing every Saturday against other ISL schools. Ultimately, in order to continue playing sports, both the EIL and ISL athletes need to keep safety as the top priority. Ms. Granese encouraged everyone to “[keep] your mask and [keep] your distance, on-campus as well as off-campus. We’ve been very lucky in terms of what’s happening at Winsor. There haven’t been a lot of cases in private schools in New England.” The ISL heads of schools similarly reaffirmed their utmost commitment to ensuring safe athletics, remarking, “the health and safety of our communities [continue] to be at the forefront of our planning.” At both Winsor and Belmont Hill, students are immensely grateful to be able to return to athletics safely and in a fun manner for the winter sports season.