Riverhead students rally outside BOE meeting to urge district to restore sports, clubs

Carrying signs like “Save our Seniors,” and “Blue Waves SOS,” a group of Riverhead students gathered outside of a Board of Education meeting Tuesday night to fight to restore sports and music programs.

Heartbroken and bitter about two failed budget votes that forced cuts to extracurricular activities, the teenagers are pushing to save at least some of the programs in an effort to salvage their final year of high school.

“We were looking forward to going for those college scholarships and playing with our friends and family one more time,” said Jordan Palmer, 17, a member of the girls varsity basketball team. “This was the year I was supposed to look at my offers and make a decision but now with the budget cuts, I decided I’m not going to play in college.”

Board members Chris Dorr and Therese Zuhoski were the only board members who came to greet the group of two dozen students, inviting them into the meeting. Several students were turned away by security personnel due to restrictions that limit capacity to 50 attendees at the meetings.

Both Mr. Dorr and Ms. Zuhoski have been staunch advocates for cutting other areas of the budget in order to save the programs, but have been met with opposition from other board members who have concerns about looming cuts to state education funding as a result of the pandemic.

Inside the meeting, students took turns speaking to the school board about the stresses and difficulties not having sports, music or clubs has had on them and their schoolmates.

A student holds a sign outside Tuesday’s BOE meeting. (Credit: Tara Smith)

“Our yearbook is going to be like two pages because there’s nothing — no clubs, no sports, no after-school activities,” Jordan said, addressing the board.

Another athlete, Nicolas Carragher, wearing a Riverhead football jacket, said when Riverhead decided it would not field sports teams, “it was like someone just brought fire to our heaven, and it was really disheartening, to say the least.”

He continued: “People don’t understand the fact that sports, clubs, music, all of these things are what [drive] us to wake up in the morning and come to school.”

Another voice from the Class of 2021, Christian Campbell, said: “Honestly, I just want to know like, why? Why these things are taken away.”

William Green has a passion for music. He has taken part in music and drama clubs, jazz band, choir and orchestra and also ran for the cross-country team. “This year has taken a toll on me,” he said.

Mr. Dorr looked toward the seated students in the audience. “To the students that are here,” he said, “I hear you and I wish I could do more to give you the school year that you deserve.” 

Stacy Seal of Riverhead attended the demonstration with her daughter Kaleigh, a three-sport varsity athlete who she said cares about little else than sports.

“She’s been looking forward to this moment, and now it’s not happening,” Ms. Seal said, noting that her daughter has been able to continue playing soccer through a club team.

While Section XI, the governing body for the county’s high school sports has delayed all athletics until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Catholic schools on the island have resumed play.

Ms. Seal said she’s worried that even when Section XI does allow sports to begin, Riverhead won’t be out on the fields. Though she understands the difficult financial situation the district is facing, she said she’d like to see the Board of Education put effort into funding some programs for students to show they care. “They’ll be left out in the cold and to me that’s just devastating,” Ms. Seal said.

Speaking about her senior year so far, Jordan said it’s off to a rocky start as she and her classmates attempt to navigate the world of distance learning and college applications.

One bright side? She won’t have to stress about SAT and ACT scores — optional this year because of the pandemic.

But other than that, there aren’t many things to smile about.

“School feels really glum,” she said, especially since they’re aware of what would have been homecoming, their final spirit week, pep rally and other cherished traditions.

“There’s nothing to look forward to anymore. After school practices, music groups, anything. We don’t have that anymore.” 

Instead, she said it feels like the senior class is merely waiting to get their diplomas and get out.

Students in grades 7-12 are currently split into three cohorts that spend two days in school at a time, followed by four days of remote instruction.

Earlier this month, interim superintendent Christine Tona announced that since additional students have opted into fully remote learning, the district would reduce the number of secondary cohorts from three to two, thus adding a day of in-person instruction for students.

Elementary students are expected to return to their classrooms five days a week later this fall.

Nicolas said he’s also noticed morale among his peers has declined in recent months. “Covid will be spreading, but so will depression,” he said.

Asked after the meeting if he felt more or less optimistic after addressing the board directly, Nicolas said he’s energized to keep going. “The most important thing is for us to be heard,” he said.