NEWPORT — The Newport School Board remains reluctant to allow high school wrestling this season despite efforts in the plan to maximize health precautions amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, Dec. 18, the Newport School Board struck down a proposal, by a split 2-2 vote, to allow the Newport High School wrestling team to participate in the 2020-2021 season due to concerns about the ongoing pandemic and a potentially higher risk in wrestling to transmit contagion.

The Newport School Board’s fifth seat remains vacant. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, a tie vote means the motion fails.

At a previous meeting, the school board delayed its decision on wrestling to await details about how wrestling practices and matches would incorporate safety measures.. Other winter sports have already received the board’s approval to begin practices.

“We’re talking about a time when [COVID] numbers are high, [participants are] inside and basically in spandex speedos, and crawling all over each other,” said Newport School Board Vice-Chair Rhonda Callum-King, who voted against the motion.

Callum-King, who as a parent has raised two student-wrestlers, spoke from personal experience about the ease of transmitted contagions in wrestling matches, including skin rashes, despite regular practices to sanitize the mats between matches.

According to Newport Athletic Director Jeff Miller, Newport’s wrestling plan would divide the team, comprising 10 to 12 total wrestlers, into smaller cohorts of three wrestlers each, sorted according to weight class. Each cohort would practice and condition together and separately from the other cohorts.

Miller said there would be no multi-school tournaments and Newport would only schedule matches with similarly-sized schools within the region, such as Mascoma and Plymouth high schools.

Though wrestling involves a uniquely high level of physical contact compared to other high school sports, Miller noted that the durations of these interactions between wrestlers is only about four to seven minutes on average, which falls under the 10-minute exposure that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines as a higher risk for viral transmission.

Miller also warned that many of these student-wrestlers were likely to join other wrestling teams if Newport’s team was unavailable and potentially wrestle against opponents from other states or regions with higher rates of infection.

But Callum-King said that possibility was not a good reason to yield.

“They are going to anyway but that doesn’t mean we give them tacit permission to do it,” she said.

Even supporters of the plan admitted having reservations due to wrestling’s physical closeness and intensity.

“[This plan] is predicated on none of the kids having COVID,” said school board member Russell Medbery, who voted for the motion. “And if none of the kids have COVID this is fine. But if one of the kids has COVID the chances of one them getting it, even with these precautions, seems pretty high.”

Miller said that he was not initially convinced wrestling could be run safely but after sitting down with coaches, as well as Newport Parks and Recreation Director P.J. Lovely, Miller felt “this plan is doable.”

High School Principal Shannon Martin advocated in support of allowing wrestling, saying the school has made efforts for other sports and activities to safely allow students their opportunities for enrichment.

“We are talking about 12 fine student-athletes who are very passionate about it,” Martin told the school board. “I would hope we would weigh these 12 [students] the same way we would our graduation ceremony.”

Martin recommended the school be upfront with the student-wrestlers and parents about the health risks but allow the students and families to accept that risk.

Callum-King disagreed, saying the typical risks in wrestling are to the individual, but the risk in regards to the virus falls upon the entire community.

“That student could say he understands and is taking this risk upon himself, and if he was talking about a broken nose, then sure,” Callum-King said. “But in this case we’re talking about a contagion. And it will spread. There is no containing it to this cohort because before they won’t know they have it before they will have interacted [within the community].”

Chair Linda Wadensten, who voted against the proposal, attributed her decision to the recent resurgence in New Hampshire.

According to tracking data by the New York Times, New Hampshire has averaged 780 new cases per day of COVID-19 over the past week, an increase of 12% from the average two weeks prior.

“Every day we are breaking more and more records and I think it’s just introducing a high risk into our community,” Wadensten said.

Student-wrestlers may find hope, however. The school board plans to review the matter again following the holiday break. As part of that discussion, the school board will also consider the rate of infection in Newport and the neighboring area, which remains relatively low, despite a rise in individual cases.

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