Socioeconomic gap widening without middle school sports, parents say

Families present solutions to board
March 16, 2021

Middle school families pushed for spring sports at the March 11 Cape school board meeting, offering transportation solutions and warning of a deepening socioeconomic divide between students who play on travel versus school teams. 

Beacon eighth-grader and track & field athlete Stephen Hart said the high jump, which he can’t practice at home, is his main event. He also missed last spring’s season due to the pandemic. 

“If I miss two whole track seasons, me and many other kids will be so far behind our upper-class peers but also our competition at other schools,” Stephen said. “Elementary students are in school five days a week and high school students have been playing sports all year. I feel like middle schoolers have been overlooked.” 

Parents were never asked if they could provide transportation for their children, Stephen said, so the district doesn’t know how many buses are needed. A survey would answer that, he said.

“Before you can make a decision such as this one, you need to know what the situation is,” he said.

Stephen’s mother, Eugenia Hart, said she was disappointed there was no school board vote or input from families in the decision. As a community, she said, families can help come up with a plan to get the kids playing the sports they love in a challenging year that has already taken so much from them. 

Eugenia suggested a parent liaison for each team to assist with administrative duties. Track teams, which comprise the largest number of athletes, can be divided into cohorts to practice, rather than all at once, she said. Schedule fewer meets, or hold them in the evening, when parents can drive their children, she added.

After winter middle school sports were canceled, said parent and Cape Henlopen Educational Foundation board member Melissa Clampitt, a statement on the Beacon sports page stated officials would be shifting focus to the spring sports season to allow time to train in DIAA’s strict protocols.

“What happened to that focus?” Clampitt asked. “What happened to the hope?” 

The decision was made without family input and without giving the community the chance to help, she said. She cited a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that found a 31 percent increase for teens urgently in need of mental health care since the pandemic began.

“This population of kids has missed out the most,” Clampitt said. “If the high school can play all of these sports, including wrestling, and mix cohorts, why don’t we think we can have the same success with the middle school spring sports that are all outside and mainly socially distanced by nature of the sport?”

The socioeconomic gap is widening by not allowing school athletes to play, Clampitt said, and not every kid is motivated by books and learning. 

“If we talk about equity, we are doing all of those kids who do not have the luxury of playing travel sports a disservice,” she said. “Those travel kids have been playing, practicing and competing on and off this whole time. We are trying to close the gap, not continue to widen it.”

Parent Alyssa Titus asked the board to consider the fact that COVID-19 cases are seriously declining, and that large-scale tournaments have safely occurred at DE Turf, Sports at the Beach and Sandhill Fields.

“We are now the only district, to my knowledge, in Sussex County that is not conducting middle school sports,” she said. “This is a two-year hiatus for spring sports for the middle school kids. This will just serve to widen the socioeconomic divide.”

Titus said her children are lucky to play travel sports, and that athletes are missing teachable moments such as sportsmanship and teamwork, and making lifelong friendships.

“This just increases the divide for those kids that are less fortunate, who only have school sports as an option,” she said. “I believe your goal as a school board and district is to provide equity to all, and this action is doing the opposite, in my personal opinion. Some of these kids may not make the team or may be too intimidated to even try when they are jumping from sixth grade to ninth grade in sports.”

Parent Cyndi Marsh said parents were polled about transportation and learning models before school began in the fall, yet families were not surveyed about spring sports. She said her husband, a middle school assistant coach, was not contacted about how he could help. 

“I feel with all the great suggestions we heard tonight, we definitely have a platform to make this work,” she said.

School board President Alison Myers told attendees the board was unable to respond to topics not noticed on the agenda, and asked parents to email their comments to her.

Cape Superintendent Bob Fulton had recommended at the Jan. 28 and Feb. 25 school board meetings that district middle schools not play spring sports in 2021; fall and winter middle school sports were also canceled.

At the time, Fulton said he discussed playing spring sports with the district athletic director, and principals at Beacon and Mariner middle schools, but concluded that too many challenges, particularly with transportation, made it impossible. 

After the meeting, Fulton said he appreciated hearing the thoughts and ideas of the parents and students who attended and participated.

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