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High School Baseball Team Suspended After Daring to Continue 2-Decade Tradition Without Masks

A high school team baseball photo almost cost the varsity squad at John Burroughs High School in Burbank, California, their entire season, all because they weren’t wearing masks and have a superintendent with the self-awareness of a chipmunk.

According to KABC-TV, it was only the intervention of a coach and an athletic director that stopped the district from putting an end to the team’s season for violating some of the most COVID-19 protocols we’ve seen.

The picture was taken in January as part of a two-decade tradition for the varsity team’s seniors to take a photo together.

There was adult supervision involved — in fact, the team moms were the ones that organized the photoshoot — but that didn’t matter once the picture hit social media. Earlier this week, the district came down hard on the players.

“We had a group of players and families dress up in uniform and take pictures on campus in violation of health orders (no masks, no social distancing, and mixing of families),” said Burbank Unified School District Superintendent Matt Hill via an email, the East Bay Times reported Thursday.

“They then posted the picture on a JBHS baseball social media site. No player or family from the team notified the coach, school, or district of this health order violation.”

And here we have the offending picture:

They were outside, not particularly close to each other and — oh, what’s the use? I’ve become resigned to the inevitable fact that every school administrator in the COVID era is determined to make themselves sound like the principal in a John Hughes movie. You mess with the bull, you get the horns.

The problem is that the horns, so to speak, originally wanted to gore the entire JBHS baseball season over this one photo.

“The district and board members decided, or they tried to cancel the whole varsity season as a result of the pictures,” said senior Rory Freck, according to KABC.

“But our athletic director and coach fought for us, and they compromised on a two-week suspension instead.”

The rest of the team will only have to serve a one-week suspension; conditioning was supposed to begin March 1, but will now start March 8 for non-seniors.

“I have decided to delay the return of athletic conditioning for the JBHS baseball team by one week so that the team can review health guidelines and safety protocols,” Superintendent Hill said. “I look forward to the team beginning conditioning on Monday, safely.”

The seniors, meanwhile, can return to conditioning on March 15 after a two-week suspension.

It’s unclear, meanwhile, when Superintendent Hill will stop being the national churlish COVID scold of the moment in the K-12 education sector — but I’m sure it’ll only be a week or two before some suburban New York principal will suspend a National Merit Scholar for a month for letting her face get too close to the water fountain spigot or whatever. Given the relative frequency of these incidents, Hill could be off the hook before the JBHS baseball seniors are able to start conditioning.

In the meantime, rest assured Hill’s scold status is well-earned. Outdoor transmission is profoundly rare. (For that matter, transmission in educational settings is ridiculously uncommon, too.) Protocols are protocols, but he could have defused this in way that kept things in perspective and made this a local news story about a questionable senior baseball team photo and a superintendent whose reaction to it was still within the range of normal human response.

Should these students have been suspended?

But no. Just because of that picture, his district’s initial response was to cancel the varsity baseball team’s entire season. Well-met, superintendent. After all, if there’s one thing that experience has taught us, it’s that there are no scholastic authority teenagers respect more than authority wielded in an inflexible, unsmiling and draconian fashion. But I’m sure their parents understand Hill is just trying to keep their children safe, right?

“I’m very disappointed that our kids are being punished for something that the moms arranged,” Rory’s mother, Jo Dee Freck, said. “And I understand that there are COVID protocols, but the boys were just trying to make us happy.”

And if you think she’s unhappy, just think of the parents of the underclassmen who got suspended for a week because of something the seniors did.

“For Matt Hill to discipline a team of players based on an individual offense, separate from any team activity, is unprecedented and an egregious abuse of the district’s power in order to prove a point,” parent Brian Nichols, whose son is on the team, said. “For a district that claims to care about the mental health of its students, this decision is in direct opposition of that claim.”

And I’m sure all of these baseball players will be duly chastened because they have to cut conditioning short “by one week so that the team can review health guidelines and safety protocols.” They’ll doubtlessly spend that week locked in their rooms, penitently studying social distancing and mask protocols and memorizing them so this never happens again.

COVID-19 has made fools and scapegoats of a great many people who are otherwise talented, competent, hardworking individuals who mean to do the right thing by themselves, their community and their employers. Superintendent Hill might well be one of them. Then there’s always the danger of passing judgment on a situation when dealing with an incomplete set of facts.

I’m trying to give this man the benefit of the doubt here because aside from those potentially mitigating factors, there’s an unpleasant conclusion to be reached: On summary judgment of the facts provided, Hill should no longer be in his job.

The initial inclination to cancel the season — whether it was his idea or came from someone else in district officialdom who Hill didn’t laugh out of the room — would have been enough to call his fitness into question. This was followed by his decision to issue suspensions — not just of the seniors in the picture but the underclassmen who took no part. And then there’s been his tin-eared messaging throughout — which, while sparse, recalls nothing so much as the self-ridiculing, po-faced sermonizing of every character in a position of unearned authority in a 1980s teen movie.

Every single action Hill took in the wake of this photograph appearing on social media did nothing to prevent the spread of COVID or to uphold COVID protocols and a whole lot to undermine any legitimate messaging he might have going forward. In the meantime, we can at least be happy these students will be playing baseball this season, no matter how much-unearned sturm und drang they’ve been put through.

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