In the midst of a pandemic with staff downsizing and declining enrollment, the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind failed to relaunch athletics for the 2021 winter season. The prospect of Lions and Raiders sports seemed destined for extinction.
On Saturday afternoon, I posted my concerns regarding the repeated absence of WVSDB at conference meetings with the Eastern Schools for the Deaf Athletic Association (ESDAA).
Was this a sign the state school planned to eliminate sports?
Frank and me
My coverage of WVSDB athletics began 4-years ago, attending basketball, soccer, volleyball, cheer and goalball competitions.
Working as a sports editor at the Mineral Daily News Tribune and now for the Hampshire Review, athletics at WVSDB have been a consistent stop on my sports calendar.
I truly have cherished the rare opportunity to cover deaf and blind athletes. One of my most heartfelt moments as a journalist happened on this picturesque campus (another column for another day).
In recent years, I built a strong working relationship with former athletic director, Frank Allnutt, who managed state school sports from October 2018 to June 2020.
Frank guided WVSDB athletics into the 21st century which included hosting ESDAA sanctioned tournaments and providing multiple athletic opportunities for deaf and blind student-athletes alike. He also improved athletic outreach with the creation of an athletics Facebook page that live-streamed games for free allowing parents to watch their sons and daughters compete. Frank was passionate about the rich history of WVSDB sports, posting highlights and snippets from yesteryear.
When the athletic director position was terminated/consolidated last year, Frank was downtrodden and concerned about the future of sports.
Although his contract was not renewed, his loyalty to WVSDB athletics has maintained true, recently stating, “I would love to get that job back.”
Pinpointing the problems
My social media message expressed my trepidation of the current status of WVSDB sports which kindled a heated and quick response from concerned alumni.
Last Friday WVSDB announced a 20% reduction in workforce, eliminating 32 positions of current staffers. The reduction in staff correlates to low enrollment numbers.
"We have a rather small population of youngsters in both the deaf and the blind schools. We have 4 girls and 2 boys in grades 9-12, and 5 girls and 4 boys in grades 6-8th,” said temporary superintendent Patricia Homberg who took over the role late last spring.
Homberg reported WVSDB’s enrollment at 94 - 51 residential and 43 day students. Of those, 58 are enrolled in the School for the Blind and 36 in the School for the Deaf.
Before the pandemic, enrollment hovered around 110 students. The low number of students enrolled in grades 7-12 is alarming. With numbers that low, the livelihood of team sports (especially those requiring 5 or more players) is in jeopardy.
Nevertheless, there is good news for some student athletes. If the state school does not have enough participants to form a team, kids can compete in the sport they desire if offered by Hampshire County Schools.
"We have 2 girls now, that are going to [Romney] Middle School to participate in track,” Homberg stated.
RMS track coach Christine Brinker confirmed 2 girls from WVSDB have attended practice.
“Any student that wants to participate in the Hampshire County schools programs, we provide transportation, and an adult is with them to interpret for them,” detailed Homberg.
No question the elephant in the room known as Covid caused chaos on campus including athletics getting shut down.
"Because of Covid, we didn't really have any athletic programs," said Homberg.
After Gov. Jim Justice shut down spring sports in 2020, strict Covid guidelines were issued that restricted campus residents from traveling state-to-state. The inability to play deaf and blind schools from neighboring states added an unforeseen layer of complexity that effectively nixed all fall sports in 2020 as well.
In January 2021, Gov. Justice announced winter sports were permitted to start practicing midway through February.
I was hopeful basketball and goalball seasons could be salvaged, but the resurrection of sports was placed on the backburner. I routinely checked WVSDB’s Facebook page for athletic updates, but nothing was mentioned.
With no announcements, no schedules and no discussion of sports restarting, it appeared that sports might be eliminated.
Another concern surrounded the 2 regional ESDAA meetings that were not attended by WVSDB administration.
The ESDAA oversees and regulates deaf interscholastic athletics for schools from Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.
Homberg acknowledged athletic director Dave Simanski did not participate in back-to-back ESDAA Zoom calls, a requirement outlined in his job description.
As of now, WVSDB is still an active member of the ESDAA, however, the current status and possible penalties stemming from missed meetings is still unknown.
Homberg was hesitant to make any further comments regarding the athletic director position repeatedly stating, "that is a personnel issue, but I hear what you are saying."
Homberg then mentioned her intent to have a conversation with Valentine Wojton, president of the ESDAA, in the near future to smooth things over.
"I have attempted to contact Valentine, and he has called me, and now I have sent an email to get a time to talk to him,” said Homberg.
One of the topics she plans to discuss is how to handle low enrollment numbers, and seeks suggestions on how best to continue playing team sports.
Homberg mentioned her willingness to attend ESDAA regional meetings if they continue to happen via Zoom.
Eager to get more details regarding WVSDB’s membership, I went to the ESDAA website to look at membership by-laws but unfortunately the by-laws tab was a dead link claiming it was under construction. I went a step further and reached out to Valentine myself via email, requesting by-laws and membership status. As of Friday morning, Valentine had not responded to my inquiry. (Article will be updated when information is received).
Outside of the ESDAA, Homberg remained confident that sports will restart in the fall.
"I have talked to Dave about setting a schedule to figure out what we will participate in in the fall and how we can let the students know.”
Homberg continued, "Dave and I have talked about athletics, and those people that are coaches on continuing contracts. We're contacting them.”
Some good news for blind student-athletes this week, as goalball was authorized to begin conditioning according to head coach Kristie Mills.
“Starting this week, they are allowing me to have conditioning 2 days a week after school,” said Mills. “Currently we have 4 boys and 6 girls participating.”
Although conditioning has been approved, the goalball season for 2020-21 has ended. Nevertheless, Coach Mills has a creative plan in the works that might include some on-campus scrimmages featuring the boys vs girls or staff vs students. (Hey coach, me and 2 Hampshire Review employees volunteer to scrimmage your team!)
Before I embarrass myself by hurling a goalball into the bleachers while blindfolded, there is another hurdle that must be cleared beforehand: the opening of the physical education building. After the departure of students last spring, the PE building has remained closed due to construction.
"We will be opening the physical education building and pool on April 12,” said Homberg.
“[The physical education building] has been closed all year to do work on HVAC systems, lighting, floor refinishing, and pool upgrades. But it will be open April 12.”
Ironically, April 12 marks the official beginning of spring sports in 2021. Lets hope the reopening of the PE building will be a symbolic relaunch of WVSDB athletics.
The road to resuming athletics is filled with potholes with 5 significant problems to overcome.
- Low enrollment numbers
- Covid restrictions
- ESDAA membership
- Staff commitment
- Unfinished facilities
The official resumption of sports has yet to take place, nevertheless, a small step in the right direction was taken this week. Thank you to the Raiders and Lions alumni that rallied together to awaken athletics at WVSDB.
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