From working out virtually in the offseason to wearing masks while competing in front of mostly empty bleachers, high school sports across Chatham County — and the rest of the state — have had a …
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From working out virtually in the offseason to wearing masks while competing in front of mostly empty bleachers, high school sports across Chatham County — and the rest of the state — have had a much different look and feel this year.
Perhaps the most jarring change, however, is the number of student-athletes who haven’t experienced any of that, the ones who never got to put on a uniform because they failed to meet academic requirements, making them ineligible for sports.
Across the county, many students — from incoming freshmen to seniors — were stripped of their eligibility this season, hitting schools like Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central much harder than usual.
Challenges brought by remote learning could be the culprit.
At Chatham County Schools, high schoolers were under the completely remote Plan C learning option until Feb. 1, just short of a full year from when Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. While remote learning wasn’t all negative — some students used the time to explore academic interests and hobbies, and many teachers cited extra individualized time with their students as positives — isolation from friends, unreliable broadband connections and the exhaustion of so much screen time led to academic declines for many students.
Last semester, the number of Chatham County students who received a grade of D or F in at least one class increased by nearly 74% from the previous year, according to December data released by the district’s central office. The district previously said schools in more rural areas with a higher number of lower socioeconomic students showed a higher rate of these failure/at-risk rates.
It’s no surprise, then, that such schools have also been negatively impacted by statewide student-athlete eligibility standards set by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA). According to its policy, in the semester before the start of their sport’s season, a student must attend at least 85% of mandatory classes and pass “a minimum load of work,” which amounts to three out of four classes in a typical block semester. The student must also pass six of eight classes in a given school year.
A December study released by McKinsey & Company found that, “On average ... students lost the equivalent of three months of learning in mathematics and one and a half months of learning in reading” last semester, meaning that many students are behind normal learning schedules. This is only exacerbated when looking at schools that predominantly serve students of color.
The number of students falling behind notably increased the number of student-athletes declared ineligible to compete when sports started back up across Chatham County this winter, according to data from several district coaches and directors.
Tracking the number of ineligible athletes in a given semester is tricky.
While it’s easy to determine the data of how many students were struck off of already-contructed rosters due to ineligibility, it becomes harder when athletic directors try to track the number deemed ineligible before those rosters were created for the season. Often, students who know they don’t meet academic requirements to participate won’t bother trying out in the first place, meaning that a school’s true ineligibility numbers are likely higher than those the institution provides.
For example, it is estimated that Chatham Central had between 16 and 22 student-athletes who didn’t meet eligibility requirements across six sports, based on data provided to the News + Record by Bears’ Athletic Director Bob Pegram and Head Football Coach Sherman Howze. In a typical year, Chatham Central might have a maximum of four student-athletes fail to meet academic standards, Pegram said.
Howze told the News + Record prior to the season that he lost 14 football players alone to ineligibility — 35% of his original roster.
“We stressed to (students) last March, everything in the first semester when we come back to school is going to count, regardless of whether it’s remote or not,” Howze said. “The grades are going to count. I just stressed it and stressed it, but if you don’t have kids in your vision, in your face, a lot of kids struggle with online learning.”
Jordan-Matthews was hit equally hard, if not harder, though specific data for school-wide ineligibility wasn’t tracked by the school.
Sam Spencer, second-year head football coach for the J-M Jets, told the News + Record last week that he lost 22 returning players — many of whom were sophomores — to ineligibility.
Include incoming freshmen, and that number jumps to 30. Freshmen are typically automatically eligible, but many weren’t this year since the football season began in the spring instead of the fall.
Jordan-Matthews has just 27 players on its football roster, meaning that more than 50% of the team’s potential roster of 57 players was deemed ineligible.
Overall, Jordan-Matthews lost at least one player to ineligibility in each sport aside from cross country and volleyball, both of which started last semester and used grades from spring 2020 to determine eligibility.
“This is extremely unusual for that many returning athletes to not cut it academically,” Jordan-Matthews Athletic Director Josh Harris wrote to the News + Record in an email message on Monday. “I can’t speak for other schools but for J-M this has been a major blow to all of the athletic momentum we thought we were gaining last year.”
Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central were both among CCS schools which reported higher failure/at-risk rates last semester. They’re located in Siler City and Bear Creek, respectively, areas where spotty broadband and poor WiFi access create challenges for many families with children in school. These schools also have a larger proportion of lower socioeconomic students, particularly compared to Northwood High School, which did not see much of an impact from eligibility requirements — losing just two athletes to ineligibility across 11 sports, according to Cameron Vernon, the school’s co-athletic director.
“I’m telling you, it hit Jordan-Matthews hard,” Spencer said. “It hit everybody hard, but it hit Jordan-Matthews real hard. … We’re just trying to make the best of it and trying to be as competitive as we can.”
Obviously, schools whose teams have lost experienced players to ineligibility can find it difficult to compete on the playing field. The Jets, for example, play in the PAC 7, a conference comprised mostly of Randolph County Schools — where students have been in Plan B, or hybrid learning, since the start of the school year.
“They were on Plan B the whole first semester, so they didn’t really lose any guys,” said Spencer. “As a matter of fact, the coach at Providence Grove told me he’s got the most kids he’s ever had.”
So far this football season, Chatham Central has a 1-2 record, while Jordan-Matthews is 0-5.
For the Bears and the Jets, each of whom have fewer than 30 players on their rosters, students are having to play more snaps, forcing them to learn how to play multiple positions on both sides of the ball. These additional snaps, along with a lack of rest, contribute to further wear and tear on players’ bodies, said Spencer, increasing their risk of injury.
“There’s just no depth,” Spencer said. “We’ve got some talented kids and they do the best they can, but when the other teams change possessions and they’ve only got one or two kids that stay on the field and we’ve got just about all 11, after two and a half quarters that’s going to take a toll on you.”
At Jordan-Matthews, men’s soccer was also heavily affected, though it didn’t stop the soccer powerhouse from claiming a PAC 7 conference title and making it to the NCHSAA 2A Sweet 16.
“A lot of the players have eligibility issues,” Jets’ Head Coach Paul Cuadros told the News + Record. “We did not have eligibility issues in the past few years, but pretty obviously, the kids have suffered under the pandemic and not being able to go to school and have access to the internet to be able to do their work.”
Eligibility aside, participation numbers declined in many sports programs because students didn’t feel comfortable trying out or playing in the middle of a pandemic. Such was the case for Daisy Lavariega, a swimmer and cross country runner at Jordan-Matthews who chose to forego her senior season.
“This year, I was going to get back into sports and stuff like that, but I can’t,” Lavariega told the News + Record last November. “(My) parents (are) just scared that I’ll have the virus, or that I will have it and I won’t know and then … when my family comes over, I’d get them all infected, so they’re just scared.”
Spencer also said some students didn’t try out for football because remote learning made them feel disconnected and less motivated.
“We had a couple of kids that were eligible and being on remote learning the whole time, I think they just didn’t feel connected to the school anymore,” Spencer said. “They were just like, ‘Nah, Coach. I’m not really into it.’ And a couple of those kids, we thought, had a chance to be all-conference-caliber players and they didn’t come out because they just weren’t into it.”
Across the county, district athletic director Chris Blice said CCS has seen a drop in participation on both the high school and middle school levels this year, citing instances where middle schools couldn’t field certain teams they’ve had for years or where rosters have shrunk significantly as less students attend tryouts.
“I don’t have any data that would confirm or deny the idea that COVID online learning, digital learning, has affected eligibility,” said Blice, who is also assistant superintendent for operations at CCS. “I think there’s probably truth to it. But I don’t know how much of it was ... just COVID.”
CCS implemented or continued multiple student support options to combat academic declines, which vary based on a student’s grade level: teacher office hours, tutoring groups, extensions and credit recovery opportunities, a 24-hour homework support line with Princeton Review in English and Spanish, social-emotional check-ins with teachers, guidance counselors and administrations and more.
Now that CCS high schoolers are moving to Plan A on April 19, coaches appear hopeful they can get their programs back on track as they’ve been working to motivate their players — especially those deemed ineligible this year — to bring their grades up.
While that doesn’t relieve students’ present stresses or the hits taken by athletic departments, nor restore the final year of seniors’ athletic careers lost to ineligibility, it does bring promise for sports in the fall and beyond.
“We anticipate that we’re going to get a number of those guys back and a couple of juniors, as well,” Spencer said of his program. “We’ll get the ball rolling here in a few weeks. … getting the momentum going again toward getting these numbers back up and getting this program in the direction we want it to go.”
Reporters Hannah McClellan and Victoria Johnson contributed to this report.