SHS cheerleaders photo

Cheerleaders and their parents and coach plead their case to Scarsdale Board of Education member Karen Ceske at a coffee talk Wednesday, June 9.

As the lone varsity team not permitted to compete during the 2020-21 school year, the Scarsdale cheerleaders are concerned that 2021-22 will be more of the same, so they, along with their parents and coach, have decided to get ahead of the curve and plead their case.

After attending a coffee talk with board member Karen Ceske following practice on Wednesday, June 9, the letter-writing campaign began at Ceske’s suggestion.

However, even though they have now been told that the district is “planning for a traditional season for all fall sports,” per an email response from Scarsdale Board of Education president Pam Fuehrer, the cheerleaders know nothing will be guaranteed unless New York State and Westchester County mandates are lifted.

Instead of waiting for that to happen, the girls want the board of education to vote against the advice of legal counsel and approve cheerleading to compete, despite guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that says wearing a mask during “competitive” cheerleading is a potential choking hazard.

Rising senior Sabrina Finegold said the proof is right in front of everyone’s faces — between the team being permitted to practice in full with masks, 27 teams competing for the Section 1 championship over the winter and nationals being held in person — and if more people in charge understood cheerleading as a sport and the preparation that goes on behind it they could see the light.

“I’m one of the girls who does get thrown in the air and stunt, spin and flip and we’re really moving around, but my mask doesn’t move,” Finegold said. “Nothing that they said could happen ever happened to us, so it doesn’t really make sense.”

Said coach Stacy Monteiro, “I really figured this would be good enough proof and we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

That’s why the team showed up en masse to the coffee talk. Though competitions don’t begin until late fall/early winter, the preparation begins now as far as hiring a choreographer, working on music, beginning to train and putting in clothing orders. The team doesn’t want to waste money, time or effort on a season that might not happen.

“We wanted to help them understand,” Finegold said. “Cheerleading is a very complex sport and very misunderstood — there are a lot of stereotypes surrounding us — so we hoped if they heard it from us directly maybe they would be able to understand.”

Many athletes had to sacrifice a season since March 2020, but they’ve lost an entire year already and that’s during a time when mental and physical well-being are on the decline.

“One of my favorite parts of being in high school is being part of the Scarsdale cheerleading team because it really has defined my time here,” Finegold said. “It’s being part of something bigger than yourself. Scarsdale is a tough school, so having two hours a day to go and be with my friends and work hard is really important for a lot of girls. Every other sport got the opportunity to do that. We should, too, with the importance of mental health, especially after the year we just went through being in our houses alone for so long.”

As per school board policy, only the board president is permitted to speak on the record to the media, so Fuehrer, who said the entire board was “thrilled” to have the students advocate for themselves, relayed what Ceske reported to the board to the Inquirer, which is that the cheerleading team is concerned, confused, disappointed and frustrated with the lack of resolution.

At the time of the coffee talk, Ceske did not have information regarding fall sports to pass on to the team, but Fuehrer immediately reached out to Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman, who provided the district’s expectation that the fall will proceed in pre-pandemic fashion.

“It was actually a surprise that there was a concern about the fall,” Fuehrer said, adding, “We have not received any indication that approving competitions for higher risk sports for the fall season will be an action required by the board or the superintendent, so all planning for now is for a traditional fall sports season. That’s our understanding.

She also said, “However, as elected officials we are all compelled to follow the guidance, so we will continue to follow whatever guidance comes from New York State and if they indicate that if Westchester County guidance is what we have to follow, then we will do that.”

That is what concerns the team.

If the indoor mask mandate in schools isn’t lifted by the state or if the AAP doesn’t change its guidance or the Westchester County DOH doesn’t change its use of AAP guidance, that essentially leaves the cheerleaders in the dust once again.

Fuehrer said that much of the guidance over the past year, which was often left to interpretation with no clarifications given, “was ridiculous and terribly frustrating for us as a board … Scarsdale is all about the details and if they are brought to our attention, we are compelled to pay attention to them.”

Other Section 1 superintendents and school boards seemingly looked the other way with an overwhelming majority of cheerleading and about half of the wrestling teams competing during the height of the pandemic. Scarsdale did not.

Scarsdale athletic director Ray Pappalardi said he fully expects that once athletics kick off for the new school year on Aug. 23 everything will be “pretty much back to normal.” Pappalardi will give a summary of the 2020-21 year in athletics and an update at the board meeting on Monday, June 21.

Until there is officially updated guidance, there is no definitive answer on cheerleading.

“Based upon what we know right now, my answer would be we’re going to be prepared to compete, because my experience has been that we are going to get notification later rather than earlier, and if we get it earlier we can be excited,” Pappalardi said, adding, “All signals are we are going back to normal as far as sports go. That doesn’t mean that’s so, but that’s the signal and that’s the way the planning has gone — that we’re back to full number of contests, back to the traditional seasons, traditional start dates. According to everything I know, the state championships are back in play for all seasons next year.”

Wrestling was in a similar situation to cheerleading — permitted to practice only — and the school board told both sports last winter that if the guidance changed they would be approved to compete. The wrestling language did change to say that a certified coach had to serve as a mask safety monitor and the board approved wrestling, which ended up having one outdoor exhibition match just days before the official end of the season.

“It’s the same thing we do in cheerleading,” Monteiro said. “We have safety monitors and all the judges and training staff and the coaches sit at the edge of the mat where the kids compete, so what is the difference between cheerleading and wrestling?”

Additionally, cheerleading teams don’t come in contact with other teams, though like many winter and fall 2 teams, the cheerleaders did have one in-season 10-day quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 case within the team. For the competitions held this school year, teams would compete and leave and then the next team would come in after the mat was sanitized.

“It’s extremely frustrating because I personally think we’re going to be back in school in September with masks on,” Monteiro said. “I hope not, but I don’t want to wait until the last minute. We fly our choreographer in from across the country. We have to prepare for music. We’re all changing our vacation schedules to come home early for preseason to prepare for competition season. I’m not doing all that if I don’t have an answer.”

For the winter and fall 2 seasons, cheerleading was split into two teams, one for those who were comfortable stunting and preparing a routine, and others who would do sideline cheers at football games. For the spring offseason workouts, the girls are now back into one squad as the perceived danger due to masking has been debunked and with COVID-19 infection rates down and vaccination rates over 70% in the state.

Monteiro said the team members were “really hurt and upset” at not being approved to compete, but she was impressed by their positivity and work ethic through it all this school year.

“At the end of the day they were just so happy to be back together as a team and practicing in some way,” Monteiro said. “They handled it with grace and poise and positive attitudes, but I don’t know that everyone is going to handle it so gracefully if it happens again. If school is back in full swing and they’re the only ones not competing, it’s going to be devastating for them.”

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