Alarmed by an increase in ineligible athletes for the spring semester and the impact that may have on students' mental health, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will recommend on Tuesday that the school board waive a local academic requirement that will open sports and other extracurricular activities to more students.
The N.C. High School Athletics Associations establishes eligibility requirements for student-athletes across the state, and local districts can add their own requirements, as long as they are not less restrictive.
The state requires that students pass three of four courses.
The local district will ask the school board at its meeting Tuesday to waive the local requirement that students must have had a 2.0 grade-point average in the previous academic quarter to be eligible for sports. It will ask that the waiver remain in place for the rest of the 2020-21 school year as well as the first semester of the 2021-22 school year.
Though the topic was not on the agenda at the school board's work session earlier this month, it became a major topic of discussion, with board members Leah Crowley and Dana Caudill Jones, in particular, suggesting that the district make some local adjustments to allow for more students to play sports or get involved in extracurricular activities.
The school board doesn't have the authority to waive state eligibility requirements.
"For the majority of high school students, they haven't seen a classroom since March, 2020, and we're penalizing them and taking away the only lifeline that they have, and that really concerns me, especially when you look at what the alternatives are, what they could be involved in if they aren't playing soccer or softball," Crowley said at the work session.
Jones said she had talked to athletics directors and coaches about the high number of ineligible athletes. One soccer coach told her that his school typically fields a varsity and junior varsity team, and that he'd be lucky if he is able to field one team this year.
"Whatever we can do to put these kids back in something they love to do (we should)," Jones said. "Honestly, it might keep a lot of kids in high school instead of dropping out."
In a typical year, about 2% of the 5,000 student-athletes in the school system fail to meet state and local requirements to compete in sports, according to statistics that school officials will present to the board on Tuesday.
The disruption in education, from in-person to remote learning, has resulted in a demonstrated loss of learning, making many more students ineligible. There are now 193 students or 9% of the 2,000 students participating in six sports who are ineligible after failing to meet state requirements.
The six sports now competing are boys and girls basketball, football, cheerleading and boys and girls lacrosse.
An additional 212 students were placed in an academic support program that requires them to go to three hours of weekly tutoring because they did not meet the local requirement. If they don't meet the tutoring requirement, they become ineligible.
Football has been the hardest hit. In a typical year, 48 students are ineligible to play. This year, that number is 111. In boys soccer, the numbers are 23 in a typical year compared with 49 this year.
Interim Superintendent Tricia McManus told the board at its work session that she had been in talks with John Sullivan, the athletics director for the school system, about this issue.
"I know these students need these outlets and not just athletics," she said.
Crowley's husband, Pat, is the football coach at Reynolds High School, and she said that has allowed her to see the impact of the pandemic and remote learning.
Some of his players are working jobs to help with family finances; others are helping siblings with school. As a result, their grades have suffered.
A sport or other extracurricular activity can be an outlet for students dealing with stress and provide them with adult mentors, Crowley said.
"For me, this is an extraordinary time, and we need to take extraordinary measures to meet them where they are," she said.
The board is scheduled to take action on the recommendation at its meeting.