School board chairperson Gary Leonard has unique perspective on athletics, coronavirus

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 9/9/20

This summer, Chatham County academics and athletics intersected just a little bit more than Gary Leonard would have liked.

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School board chairperson Gary Leonard has unique perspective on athletics, coronavirus

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This summer, Chatham County academics and athletics intersected just a little bit more than Gary Leonard would have liked.

As a longtime language arts and social studies teacher who knows the power of the classroom, it was already tough enough for Leonard to vote for remote learning in Chatham County Schools, which the board — he serves as its chairperson — has unanimously approved for the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year.

And his successful stints as a Chatham Central baseball coach and athletic director just added salt to the wound.

“Our No. 1 priority as a board is the safety and security of our students and employees,” Leonard, 64, said last week. “But these choices aren’t easy. Gosh, they’re so hard.”

As North Carolina figures out its ever-evolving response to the coronavirus pandemic, local boards of education in Chatham County and beyond have served as serious power brokers.

When Gov. Roy Cooper announced his administration’s school re-opening plan in July, he gave individual school districts the flexibility to choose between a Plan B of in-person, reduced-capacity learning or a Plan C of fully remote learning for the fall.

And when the NCHSAA and commissioner Que Tucker cleared the way for summer workouts at member schools in June, they, too, left the final decision to resume with the districts.

Faced with those major decisions, Leonard said he and his four fellow board members — David Hamm, Melissa Hlavac, Del Turner and Jane Allen Wilson — can only “hope that we’ve gotten things right.”

He added: “There are a lot of people that think that we haven’t, that we should be in school right now. And I wish we were.”

Education-wise, the board unanimously passed a motion on July 16 to start the school year with four weeks of remote learning, or Plan C. At its Aug. 10 meeting, the board extended that to the first nine weeks. Chatham County Schools started its fourth week of online learning Monday.

And those moves have tangibly impacted sports.

After holding two weeks of socially distanced workouts in July at Northwood, Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central — a plan created by district athletic director Chris Blice and local ADs, then approved by the board — the district paused them “indefinitely” a day after the board’s initial Plan C approval.

Then, after the board’s Plan C extension, a spokesperson confirmed the district will keep those workouts on hold as long as instruction remains remote. The current nine-week period runs through Friday, Oct. 16, and the NCHSAA will allow official cross country and volleyball practices to resume Nov. 4.

“I feel so sorry for our athletes,” Leonard said.

When he was the baseball coach at Chatham Central, he couldn’t stand for his players to miss out games — enough so that he’d schedule his season openers as far back as possible so any athletes finishing up winter basketball season didn’t lose a single inning in the spring.

“Because they never get that back,” Leonard said. “If we play one game, then they don’t get an opportunity to come back and play that game again. It’s not like college, where you can get an extra year of eligibility.”

Months later, he still finds himself irked that 2020 seniors — the ones playing baseball and softball and women’s soccer and lacrosse and more — never got to finish out their spring seasons.

And he can’t drive by an empty field without thinking about how, if it were any other fall, the county would be alive with sports right now: football, cross country, men’s soccer, youth leagues.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Leonard said.

Despite his lifelong love for sports and his experience in them — he coached Chatham Central baseball for nine years, winning the 1997 1A state championship, and worked as the Bears’ AD from 2000 to 2007 — Leonard has kept staff and student safety as his guiding principle.

That’s why he had no problem voting for Plan C in Chatham County Schools or OKing the system’s athletics suspension, which was again formulated by Blice in collaboration with local ADs. He wants sports, he said, but he wants them safely, even if it means sacrifices now.

“I just hate that the decisions have affected our young people so much,” Leonard said.

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.


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