Funding to start an esports program in Springfield high schools was approved this week over the objections of a board officer who described the extracurricular activity as “problematic.”
Board vice president Maryam Mohammadkhani raised concerns about the impact of the competitive video game playing — also called esports — on participants’ physical and mental health.
“We are growing children’s minds and… it behooves us to look at it from the perspective of we don’t have enough data to know that it’s not harmful,” Mohammadkhani said.
Mohammadkhani said she did not support purchasing the recommended hardware and software for the extracurricular program at a time when the district was “making an effort to balance screen use” in students, at her urging.
She was the lone nay in the board’s 6-1 vote to approve a list of contracts, agreements, change orders and bids including $59,520 to buy 60 laptops and related accessories for the esports program.
Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the decision to add esports this fall was based on the input of students and Josh Scott, director of athletics.
“I asked ‘What’s missing?’ and what do we need to keep students engaged,” Lathan said.
Lathan said, in her entry plan unveiled in December, that esports is one of the fastest growing activities in the world and it has the “potential to reach students not currently engaged in traditional athletics.”
She said the games played will be age-appropriate and noted esports are being offered by a growing list of Missouri colleges, including locally.
The Missouri Scholastic Esports Federation, founded in 2019, reports there are more than 100 middle and high schools — representing at least 2,000 students — who participate in esports.
That group’s summer conference is July 29-30 at Ozarks Technical Community College.
Esports are regulated by the Missouri State High School Activities Association and each team will have a staff sponsor and must follow state guidelines.
This week:4,400 Springfield children will receive free books for summer reading from SPS district
John Mulford, deputy superintendent of operations, said the plan is to offer esports at the high schools. At this point, middle schools are not included.
“We’re always looking at more ways to get kids involved and so this is one more activity that kids can get involved in,” Mulford said. “It also tends to target a group of students who may not be involved in physical sports.”
Board member Steve Makoski said extracurricular options such as esports help students develop into productive citizens and gain new skills. He called the start-up cost a “good value.”
“It begins to open up doors, opportunities like scholarships,” Makoski said.
Mohammadkhani said research indicates that adults who engage in competitive gaming can show increased aggression and depression, in addition to physical health risks.
“It harms these people just like it harms people who play football and basketball, in a different way,” Mohammadkhani said.
Board member Danielle Kincaid responded: “Are we going to cut that funding then, too?”
Mohammadkhani said she was not proposing that and she supports offering students a range of extracurricular activities.
She suggested the district use funds earmarked for esports to upgrade software used to filter out undesirable content on student devices so there are fewer distractions during class time.
She also questioned buying “high performance” computers for gaming, not curriculum.
“We’re choosing to do it for extracurricular but they’re stuck with Chromebooks in their classrooms — that they’re already gaming on,” she said.
The district recently took steps to scale back technology use in the early grades and it plans to “re-establish the role of technology” in the district, provide more staff training, and evaluate the types of devices used, especially at the high school level.
The board was told to expect a report with recommendations in early 2023.
Board president Denise Fredrick said colleges, including some in Springfield, now offer scholarships for esports.
“It is extremely popular,” Fredrick said.
Fredrick said the district has expanded extracurricular options in recent years based on demand, including archery.
“I went to one of the first archery tournaments at Parkview,” she said. “It was amazing to see the number of students participating that had never participated in any other sport because they just weren’t your typical student that would go out to play basketball or football or track.”
Fredrick said esports may find the same success in the district.
She said research shows when students get involved in different activities, grades and attendance goes up and discipline issues go down.
“I’ve heard that over and over and over from teachers and coaches,” she said.
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com.
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