LAWRENCE — In-person learning for some of the city’s public school students resumed this week, with nearly 200 “high needs” children, including special education and English language learners, returning to classrooms across the district for the first time since the pandemic hit last March.
On Friday, about 40 students, parents and coaches stood outside City Hall wondering when it would be student-athletes’ time to return to the playing field.
With the vast majority of Lawrence’s 13,500 students still taking classes remotely on the internet from home, winter sports practices and games remain on hold. On Friday afternoon, those dozens of athletes, parents and coaches rallying outside City Hall shared a single message: Let the kids play.
Nearly 90 minutes into the rally, which was monitored by two police officers, a representative from Mayor Kendrys Vasquez’s office came out of City Hall to tell the organizers their pleas had been heard and that Vasquez was willing to plan a meeting with them. Sports officials and others at the high school have also lent support through social media, organizers of the rally said.
Lawrence High sophomore Adonis Garcia should be running these days. Instead, he’s forced to keep in touch remotely with his coach and work out with his teammates on their own when possible. For Adonis, sports isn’t just about having something to do after school — it’s about having a future.
“A lot of kids don’t make it out of Lawrence and sports is how they make it out,” said Adonis, who is also a member of the Lawrence High football team. “A lot of kids play sports for the (scholarship opportunities). If we didn’t have sports, a lot of kids wouldn’t go to school and kids would end up dropping out. It’s really not fair how schools in other cities and inside Lawrence, Central (Catholic) and GLTS (Greater Lawrence Tech), are playing.”
The 200 or so students who have returned to schools include
Amid chants of “we need sports” and honks from passing drivers, rally organizer Nilson Rosario, a teacher at South Lawrence Elementary School, explained why he and two friends arranged the rally.
“I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for high school sports and I feel like these kids need it too,” said Rosario, who joined with Alex Garcia and Tawon Hester to bring together athletes from both Lawrence High and the Merrimack Valley Junior Lancers, a football league they’re looking to start in the spring. “There’s ways to keep playing and I feel like they should be able to play. Sports meant everything to me: It kept me focused and was one of the main reasons I went to school since I wasn’t much of a student.”
Sports as an escape from pandemic fatigue is something Antoinette Oellerich, Lawrence High assistant varsity cheerleading coach, said is a strong reason to resume athletics. Oellerich, who coaches the high school’s 19-member coed squad with head coach Katelyn Skerry, held a sign at Friday’s rally advocating for the mental health benefits provided by sports.
Oellerich would surely know: In addition to her time on the mat as a cheer coach, she works at the high school as a paraprofessional, assisting special needs and medically fragile students. She said learning remotely “is very stressful for the kids.”
“These kids sit in front of a (computer) screen all day and have nothing to do to get out of the house,” she said. “We just want to get the kids something. I know cheerleading is stunting and hands on, but we can social distance. We can teach them how to be safe, just like we’ve been doing this whole pandemic. We need sports.”