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Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey fall high school sports are on track to begin practices in mid-September and commence their seasons in early October. Since the middle of the July, scholastic teams have been practicing during the summer period under the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s three-phased “Return to Play” guidelines. The results, from a health perspective, have been promising. Every high school in the Shore has had some form of summer workouts, except one.

Neptune High School.

Neptune has not held any summer workouts since the NJSIAA announced its return-to-play plan. In fact, the majority of the school’s fall coaches have not been board-approved for the upcoming season, according to multiple sources and confirmed by public comments during Wednesday night’s Neptune Township School District Board of Education meeting. The school district also recently made the decision to start the year in a fully-remote format through October.

With coaches yet to be hired and no summer workouts being held, parents are worried the district will make the decision to cancel fall sports, which would make Neptune the only Shore Conference district to make that decision. There was no update announced during Wednesday night’s board meeting, which was held virtually on the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Instead, board president Dorothea Fernandez announced a special meeting will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 2, to further discuss plans for sports and extracurricular activities.

For several parents who voiced their opinion during the public comment portion of the meeting, that wasn’t good enough.

“I keep asking why Neptune keeps losing students to other schools and it is because of decisions like this,” said Jacqui Tinik. “Families leave districts for many reasons and we just gave them another one.”

“Maybe you see a coach as a $5,000 or $8,000 stipend but we see them as someone who has helped our child along their journey. We cannot put a price tag on that level of support.”

The public comment portion of the meeting was dominated by pleas to the BOE to approve the fall coaches and join the rest of the conference in returning to practices. The parents who commented all expressed the desire for their children to remain at Neptune but were also frustrated by the district’s delayed decision that could affect their ability to switch schools. Fall athletes, for example, must transfer schools by Sept. 1 to be eligible to play for their new school without having to sit out for 30 days, as per the NJSIAA’s transfer rule for this season. If Neptune decides to cancel fall sports at the Sept. 2 meeting, that deadline would have passed.

“My son is going to be a freshman and every day he asks if there are going to be sports and I don’t know what to tell him,” said Nakia Craft. “Kids now don’t want to come (to Neptune) because they don’t know if there are going to be fall sports. All the surrounding towns are practicing. These kids could be in trouble and out in the streets but instead, they’re looking to play. At this point, something should be done.”

“Sports and extracurricular activities are huge deciding factors for our students,” said Kathy Yevchak, who indicated she a child in the Neptune School District and another at Mater Dei Prep in Middletown. “We just don’t know what you’re doing. There needs to be more communication. If you’re not deciding until next Wednesday, you’re leaving me with no choice but to move my child out of the district. It’s such a disservice to the students in this district, especially the high school students. Sports are a way for them to get to college and advance their academics beyond high school. It’s been a horrible year for all of us and we’ve worked so hard to get through it. To think about eliminating or postponing high school sports; other schools started July 13 and I don’t see why we’re not doing that. I really don’t get it.”

Another unnamed parent went as far as to say her son was being recruited to play at several other high schools because of the uncertainty surrounding Neptune athletics.

“He is looking forward to football and working toward a scholarship,” the parent said. “Football is his sport. All other schools are playing and he’s getting calls from other schools to transfer. I don’t want to but he wants to play. It’s important to these kids. They’ve had nothing to do, been idle for months. All the other towns are practicing and we don’t know if we’re going to have a season or not.”

China Foster’s son is an incoming freshman and a student-athlete. She had taken her kids out of the Neptune School District years ago but decided to come back to Neptune for high school. Now, she’s wondering if she made the wrong decision.

“We heard such wonderful things about the high school and all the programs and sports and the difference it makes for these kids that I decided to move back into the district,” Foster said. “Now he may not get the opportunities at this school that he would get at another school. And to keep pushing back (the decision) is doing a disservice to these kids. It’s like you’re putting us off until the last minute so (transferring) is not an option. It’s something that needs to be communicated to the parents so we can make our plans.”

Neptune had originally planned for a hybrid model for the upcoming school year but was forced to pivot to an all-remote start. Neptune Superintendent Dr. Tami Crader said the number of students requesting all-remote learning under the hybrid model was one of the deciding factors.

“We had 750 and climbing students opting for all-remote learning and that’s an untenable situation,” Crader said.

During a later portion of the meeting, another board member noted approximately 100 staff members in the district had requested a leave of absence.

There has been plenty of offseason buzz surrounding Neptune’s football program after the school hired Shane Fallon as its new head coach in March. Fallon, who was most recently the athletic director at Holmdel High School, was the longtime head coach at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School where he built the Bulldogs into a consistent state championship contender.

The football program is among the most prestigious in the Shore Conference and has won four NJSIAA state sectional titles since the playoffs began in 1974. The Scarlet Fliers boast luminaries such as legendary head coach John Amabile, pro quarterback Bob Davis, standout quarterback and current assistant coach Justin Cella, Nate Ramsey, who was the schools' first player to reach the NFL, dynamic running back Scott Harley, current New Orleans Saints wide receiver Keith Kirkwood and currently Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry.

Fallon declined to comment on the status of the fall season when reached Wednesday night. Neptune athletic director Rick Arnao did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and the NJSIAA have supported a return-to-play this fall, but the decision ultimately rests in the hands of the local school districts. Eleven high schools statewide have canceled fall sports due to COVID-19 concerns and another – Trenton Central – has canceled football for this year. No Shore Conference teams, however, have canceled any sports thus far.

The summer period for workouts concludes this Friday, Aug. 28. There will be a "dead period' from Aug. 29 through Sept. 13 during which organized team activities are prohibited. Practices can resume on Sept. 14. The fall sports season is set to begin on Sept. 28 for girls tennis, Oct. 1 for boys and girls soccer, field hockey, and cross country and Oct. 2 for football. Gymnastics and girls volleyball, both indoor sports, have been postponed to a newly-created season that will begin on March 3.

Public health data continues to trend in a positive direction in New Jersey. The rate of transmission dropped for the fifth straight day on Wednesday and is currently below 1. Gov. Murphy also announced that gyms can reopen on Sept. 1 with 25% capacity and other guidelines.

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