‘Absolutely the hardest decision I’ve made’: School officials struggle with choices on classes, sports

BUTLER COUNTY — Chris Urso, father of two and president of the Middletown Board of Education, understands the decisions parents and educators around the country made at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

They were tasked with balancing the importance of education — either in-person or virtual — and the opportunity for extracurricular activities. If students couldn’t attend in-person classes because of coronavirus concerns, should they be allowed to play sports and participate in other school activities?

That’s been debated around the country and here in Butler County.

Middletown was in the minority when the district suspended all fall activities on July 30 and decided to hold virtual classes to start the school year. It was the only local district to suspend extracurricular activities.

Then last week, after receiving pressure from community members and students, the board unanimously voted to reinstate the activities during a Monday business meeting. Urso said he struggled falling asleep in the days before the vote.

“These are complicated times with complicated issues,” he said during the meeting. “This is absolutely the hardest decision I’ve made as a board member.”

Whether it was the right decision may take weeks or months to determine and may depend of who’s answering the question. Everyone wants students to have a meaningful educational experience. At the same time, no one wants that experience to cause harm to students or staff.

“When I drive my car with my children as passengers I do my best to be extremely careful,” Urso said in an e-mail to The Journal-News. “However, when I drive with someone else’s child in my car that extreme attention is taken to an even higher level. Their parent has trusted me to get their child, who they love dearly, safely from point A to point B.”

Two Middletown senior football players — outside linebacker Cameron Junior and quarterback Kamari Fuller — said they were thankful to be given the opportunity to compete. The Middies missed 42 practices due to the suspension and open the season Friday at Fairfield.

“We were very worried, but we never lost hope,” Fuller said of the prospects of playing his senior season.

Junior said it was a “scary moment” watching the school board members vote. He believes the board made the right call.

In the days since the announcement, MHS Athletic Director J.D. Foust has been scrambling trying to fill the schedule for the football, volleyball and soccer teams while the coaches have held tryouts and practices.

“Challenging to say the least,” Foust said.

That’s because 25 percent of the schools the Middies were supposed to play either have canceled their seasons, shifted to conference-only games or filled their schedules after Middletown suspended activities.

The reinstatement also has caused some issues for Steve Shuck, Greater Miami Conference commissioner and assigner for football officials. He said some officials have decided not to work games this year due to potential health risks and other officials have already been assigned.

“The number of crews is scarce and we’re all looking for officials,” Shuck said.

Regardless of what happens on the field, Foust said at least the Middies are competing.

“I’m excited for the kids,” he said. “This is better than sitting at home.”

Only time will tell if he’s right.

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