Twenty-seven teams competed safely at the Section 1 winter cheerleading championships. Scarsdale High School was not one of those teams. And, as of now, the girls will not compete in the current fall 2 season either.
Though members of the Scarsdale Board of Education saw at least some hypocrisy in their vote, they chose unanimously — for a second time — to deny the high school’s cheerleading squad the opportunity to compete this school year at its March 8 meeting.
As promised, the BOE members said if the wording changed for the American Academy of Pediatrics guidance on masking for cheerleading and wrestling, they would permit competition. The wording did change for wrestling, which ended up having one meet in the final week of the high-risk winter season, but for cheerleading, which is a two-season sport, the liability remained in the eyes of the board and the administration.
According to the AAP language, which was provided to schools as part of Westchester County Department of Healthy guidance, “Face masks should not be worn for competitive cheerleading (tumbling/stunting/flying) … because of the theoretical risk that the mask may get caught on objects and become a choking hazard or accidently impair vision.”
Athletic director Ray Pappalardi said the administration was not recommending cheer be permitted to compete based on the language and advice from the school’s lawyer that something “catastrophic” could happen.
While the cheerleading team was permitted to practice with full contact and stunting and prepare a complete routine — much the way wrestling was allowed to train in full — the word “competitive” is what gave the administration and district council trepidation.
As it turned out, however, it wasn’t only the masking, which was given as the lone reason for denying wrestling and cheerleading at the Feb. 8 meeting. “It really is a COVID issue,” superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman said late in the discussion at the March meeting.
He used the “proof of concept” argument that cheerleaders may have spread COVID-19 to each other when they became the first team quarantined back in February prior to the vacation week. That said, basketball and ice hockey were still allowed to compete despite having quarantines due to potential exposure to opponents who were positive and COVID-19 cases, which may or may not have been related to athletics.
“Remember it’s not the risk, it’s the liability,” Pappalardi said. “It’s the guidelines that we’re supposed to follow if we are competing. If we compete against other schools there are guidelines we’ve been asked to follow. If we don’t follow those guidelines we are acting in direct opposition to the guidelines in allowing our kids to compete. I think you have to separate it from what makes sense. I’ve lived this all year long. It’s not going to make sense to you the way it is and that’s fine.”
Board of Ed vice president Allison Singer and member Amber Yusuf inquired as to how 27 other teams were able to compete and BOE member Robert Klein said of Scarsdale’s peer districts who are permitting cheer, “These are responsible districts who make responsible decisions typically, so it is just very challenging to rationalize how so many schools have gotten past this — and I’m not saying the attorney hasn’t made a strong argument — but as a parent who would be reading this it does seem difficult to understand… There’s something that just doesn’t seem logical.”
Pappalardi said, “I do think the other schools are not paying attention to the link that was on there that sent them to the American Academy of Pediatrics. I have no idea how other schools can ignore this. I’ve had this same conversation over and over with our cheerleading coach.”
Pappalardi did praise the competition organizers as only judges and event staff were in the gym and teams were brought in at staggered intervals to compete and then leave. He called it “ingenious” and “well run.” That said, it didn’t match AAP guidance, he said.
“It’s kind of like we’re entangled in this guidance that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “You can’t have both sets of guidance that you must mask within 6 feet of social distancing, but you can’t wear a mask during a sport where you can’t socially distance. That’s where we’re stuck.”
Board president Pam Fuehrer wondered why the school’s lawyer is OK with allowing everything that happens in a competition to happen in practice, “But the lawyer isn’t OK with the cheerleaders doing that exact same routine in competition even though there’s no other teams that they’re exposed to?”
She added, “With cheerleading I just don’t understand how our liability is any greater than letting our athletes do their work in our gyms vs. going to another gym and doing the exact same thing with no exposure to another student from another district. I don’t see how our liability changes there at all.”
Again, Pappalardi said the guidance from the AAP mentions competition specifically. Hagerman also noted the lawyer’s job is to “assess liability, not risk,” so the words “competitive cheer” are what is causing the issue.
Fuehrer said her “instinct” in this case would be to “go against lawyer’s recommendation,” but when it came time to vote she voted against it.
Klein suggested testing, but that was deemed too unreliable, and BOE member Ron Schulhof recommended a waiver of liability. “We have an acknowledgement of risk and that’s as far as we’re going to be able to go on this,” Hagerman said. “We, as a public school, we can’t ask kids to release all liability… Our attorney is going to say that’s impossible to do.”
Cheerleading was doing offseason noncontact workouts starting in December and moved to full practices on Feb. 9, along with wrestling, when other high-risk winter sports were approved for practices and competition. Coach Stacey Monteiro said at that point the team was OK with the BOE’s decision knowing that it wasn’t the competitive season, which this year would happen in fall 2. The team also wasn’t rushing to get its routine ready knowing it would not compete in February or early March either way. Then to see 27 teams compete in early March made the girls, parents and coaches do a double take and wonder why they were sidelined.
“We were all watching the livestream of teams competing this weekend. And they’re like, ‘Why can’t we be there?’” Monteiro said. “It’s not five to 10 teams. It’s 27 teams. Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Westchester and we were not there. We’re a good team. We compete nationally. We’re top five in the local competitions we go to and the kids are just sitting there watching it.”
Monteiro added, “So you’re telling me 27 districts aren’t following the guidelines that we are?”
Monteiro doesn’t understand the logic, and several BOE members agreed, even though four of them — Fuehrer, Schulhof, Klein and Karen Ceske — voted against amending the proposal to allow cheerleading to compete, heeding the advice of lawyers that it could put the district at risk. Carl Finger, Singer and Yusuf were in favor of permitting cheerleading to compete.
“It’s unfair,” Monteiro said. “Everything can start except cheerleading. Literally we’re the only ones that were voted down twice. In wrestling it’s OK now if you have someone monitoring the match. What do you think we’re doing at the edge of the mat as coaches? The kids are upset, the parents are upset because it’s unfair and it doesn’t make sense. You’re letting us practice routines in practice. There’s no difference on a competition mat. I’m still there sitting in the same spot.”
Monteiro met with her team the day after the second ruling with a message of remaining positive and spirited moving forward. Skill and strength development will continue to be keys this season and to prepare for the future. “I’m going to keep moving forward,” Monteiro said. “The practices are going to be the same, but we just won’t be cramming for time. I’m going to continue putting the routine together and I’m going to continue to prove to everybody that they can do a routine and it can be done safely. Nothing is going to change. We’re going to keep doing what we do best.”
This year there is no junior varsity team, just varsity, but they did split the girls into a competition team and a game team. Basically, anyone who wasn’t comfortable with not having social distancing would be on the game team to cheer at football games in the current fall 2 season, while the competition team would work on a full routine. At the time that was decided, they still hoped to be approved for competition during fall 2.
Despite the disappointment, the two squads have been working hard and enjoying their time together. There are eight girls on the game team, including all of the seniors, Melissa Lass, Sarah Hantgan, Catie Michael, Alexandra Kim, Rebecca Newman and Natalie Lloyd, while the competition team has 20 girls, including only two returning varsity cheerleaders, Blake Goodman and Lily Kiaei, and 13 sophomores.
“It’s just been nice to get back into the gym and I’m grateful for that,” Goodman said. “The hardest thing to adapt to is not being able to compete. That was really tough for us considering all the other cheerleading teams in Westchester are allowed to.”
Not having any seniors on the competition team and only two returners is a challenge as they try to bring 18 new girls to the varsity level without all the things that make varsity varsity. The good news is the team already knows it is working toward next school year with hopes of competing with a fully returning team.
“We’ve talked about it a lot how we miss the seniors and I wish they were on the team,” Goodman said. “They’re some of my best friends and they would be great, but part of them not doing the competition team, besides COVID and stunting, was knowing this would be a great time for us to get an early start to get ready for next year when we will be competing.”
When it comes to masking and the sport, Goodman said the issues were “not the issues that the county or the board think we would have, choking hazards and stuff like that, but it’s definitely a big change like it is for every single sport. For cheer we’re all double-masked and very cautious. That makes it very hard on our endurance and we’re only doing half what we used to do last year and it’s very, very hard to do that.”
Especially since under the new format the team wouldn’t have contact with other teams, Goodman believes competing would be safe.
“I think so 100% and I think that’s why every other school is competing,” she said. “That’s been the hardest thing to deal with. And it’s hard when every other Scarsdale team is able to have their games and we work really hard and we don’t get that reward. That’s been really frustrating.”
Lass has been a flier since freshman year and she and her family made the choice to join the game team.
“I wanted to be social distancing with COVID,” Lass said. “I really wanted to stunt, but personally I thought it would be better to social distance. I haven’t personally seen any issues [with the masks]. Mine always stays on, even when I do tumbling.”
Given the alternative to cheer for games, Lass was excited to be out there motivating the football team and the limited crowd on Saturday against Port Chester.
“It was really great because it had been so long since we had a football game,” Lass said. “It was nice going out there and cheering in front of a crowd again. I’m really happy we were able to have some sort of season because for our last year we want to still cheer even if it wasn’t the same. With this we get to have more relaxed practices and just enjoy our last season.”
Though they have had separate practices since after the quarantine period from February, the seniors have been doing their best to give the competition team tips and encouragement in hopes that they will be able to compete and return to nationals in 2021-22.
“We went to semifinals freshman, sophomore and junior year, so we were really hoping to make it to finals, but we ended on a decent note,” Lass said. “Three years of semifinals is a huge accomplishment. I’ve really enjoyed the season in general. I’m just happy I’m able to cheer for my last year.”