GAINESVILLE — One day after the unenviable task of having to draft the notice saying fall sports was being called off, Amanda Willis, VP for Operations and Strategic Communications and Initiatives at Riverside Military Academy, was more than eager to elaborate on the school’s unprecedented move.
As of now, the Eagles are the only school in the state to cancel their fall sports season in large part because of COVID-19 and the state and public's response.
“It’s been a little stressful,” Willis said Friday during a phone interview. “First off, we feel like from the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak we’ve been ahead of the curve at Riverside on things like acquiring masks and sanitation things. Our (school) president (Col. Stanley C. Preczewski) had the foresight to see what was coming and did a great job of staying ahead of things right from the start of this.
“As far as having to say we were canceling fall sports, it was not an easy decision. But (RMA) acted in what we think is in the best interest for the health, safety, and security of all the cadets, faculty, and staff here moving forward.”
Willis also was more than pleased to quell a quickly spreading rumor that the school, which has been playing football since 1908, was looking to find a way to disband the program altogether and using this as a catalyst.
“That is definitely not true. There has been no discussion ever of dropping football here,” she said. “It’s the oldest program in our athletic department, and there is a lot of history as well. No truth to that at all.”
Willis said more practical factors involved in the decision had to do with being transparent with potential students and parents as well as being able to have the necessary intangibles in place for the start of the fall season.
The school sent out a survey to the parents of students from the previous year and 81 percent of the projected 368 incoming students -- cadets and day students -- responded they planned to come back for the 2020-21 academic year.
"We feel that was a very good response," she said. "But it also meant that if they were coming here with the intent to play sports, we needed to let them know upfront what the situation is."
Willis said the school had been discussing a possible cancellation "for a couple of weeks" given that the GHSA had suspended all GHSA sports and activities, and, understandably, could not say whether those suspensions will impact the fall season. Willis also stated that RMA had been in contact with the GHSA regularly seeking updates as to when the suspension would be lifted but that all responses from the GHSA to those queries indicated that the suspension remained in place and that there was no definitive time at which a decision would be made to extend or lift the suspension.
A purported memo from the Georgia High School Association emerged earlier in the week, stating that they were banning interscholastic athletics for the upcoming school year because of the virus. But the GHSA came out on Tuesday refuting that memo, which they said was a rumor started in the Savannah area. Regardless, that memo “played no role in (RMA’s) decision,” according to Willis.
GHSA Executive Director Dr. Robin Hines on Thursday in an interview with AccessWDUN said the GHSA, as of now, has not issued any directives or made any changes to the official start dates for the upcoming 2020-21 school year.
“That first memo was fake news. July 27 is still the first official start date and that has not changed,” he said. “We have not changed any start dates for anything as of now. We are planning on starting the school year as planned.”
“Right now, there are still a lot of things up in the air about whether things will start on time because of the virus,” Willis said. “Even if no dates have changed, there also has been no official word (from the GHSA) that there will be a season. We felt we needed to inform the parents that if they are sending their kids here to play sports as part of their experience we could not guarantee them that there would be a season.
“The financial aspects of running things was not much of a factor. The biggest issue really is just that with all this uncertainty, football is the first sport to start. And since most of our students don’t arrive until August, we just felt this was the best course of action.
“We’re a boarding school and can’t just turn our school on with a switch as the public schools can. Again, this was an effort to be transparent with the students and parents who are coming here. That is our first obligation. It was a tough decision but it is set now.”