Superintendent Mark Daniel understands social aspects play a big role in students wanting to come to school, so he was sympathetic when parents voiced dissatisfaction about reduced offerings this fall at Fort Wayne middle schools.
The Fort Wayne Community Schools leader even shared an encouraging update last month – middle school sports should resume with basketball season.
Academic teams, including Spell Bowl and Math Bowl, also should start second semester, adding to the middle school clubs and intramural sports already taking place.
Daniel described athletics, performing arts and clubs as essential.
“One principal told me, ‘The only reason you come to school, Mark, is 99% of it’s to be social, and 1% is to be on academics,’ ” Daniel said during an October board meeting.
But changes prompted by the coronavirus pandemic are affecting social opportunities, particularly at the secondary level.
FWCS adopted a blended instructional model for the middle and high schools this fall, meaning students choosing in-person instruction split their week between coming to school and learning from home.
Daniel has touted the blended model’s success in helping FWCS create social distancing at the secondary schools, but parent Renae Schaller has witnessed a downside. Her son at Blackhawk Middle School doesn’t get to see his best friends because they come to school on different days, she told the school board last month.
Her son also has missed participating in such activities as Blackhawk’s cross country team, Schaller added.
“These kids are hurting emotionally,” Schaller said.
Fellow parent Jennifer Matthias, who was elected to the school board this month, also shared concerns about after-school activities for middle schoolers. She acknowledged her family can afford programs offered through other organizations, but not all families can.
“That’s the equity part that is bothering me the most about these children,” Matthias said. “They need our schools.”
Offering programs has been trickier this fall because district leaders must balance the activities’ social-emotional benefits with public health guidelines, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
The blended model also added transportation complications, particularly when considering competitive middle school sports, she said. Those student-athletes are too young to drive themselves to practice on their remote learning days, she said, and their 2:30 p.m. practice time isn’t convenient for parents.
That contributed to the decision to offer fall intramural sports, Stockman said.
It’s a decision that could have long-term effects.
Along with helping students develop collaboration and leadership skills, activities including intramurals strengthen students’ connection to school, which can lead to increased academic achievement and graduation rates, said Shenita Bolton, the district’s college and career readiness manager.
Maintaining athletic opportunities at the middle schools also is important because it often leads to involvement in high school and college sports, Bolton said.
“We also know students who work hard on the field, court or track often are more likely to work harder in class and achieve academic success,” Bolton said. “It is important for us that students are involved in co-curricular activities and succeed in and out of the classroom.”
Competitive sports at the middle schools should begin soon with basketball. Tryouts are set for Nov. 30 to Dec. 3 with games scheduled in January and February, said Virgil Tharp, FWCS athletic liaison. Soccer and track are planned for spring.
A missed athletics season at the middle school level means lost time in honing the essential skills, Tharp said. This makes it more difficult to “jump back into it” when playing resumes, especially for eighth graders who wouldn’t play again until high school, where students are physically more mature, he added.
It also could be the end of some students’ participation in sports, Stockman said, speaking from experience with her children. Her son lost interest in soccer after not making the team in sixth grade, she said, and her daughter abandoned taekwondo when the season was canceled because of the pandemic.
“The effect of having that break is definitely an issue for kids,” Stockman said. “If you lose that momentum, it can be lost forever.”