Among those grappling with the impact of the pandemic on their lives are local student-athletes, many of whom saw their winter championships and entire spring seasons wiped out by it. A task force organized by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHAA) met last week to discuss when high-school sports might return, and when it does, what it might look like.
The task force, which officially met June 10, is comprised of school district superintendents, athletic directors, high school administrators, an athletic trainer, a district transportation director and representatives of the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and the New York State Department of Health. The task force is at least partly informed by guidelines established by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which last month categorized different sports as lower, moderate and higher risk. Also considered by the task force was a survey of roughly 6000 athletic directors, district administrators, athletic trainers and coaches.
Ranking by risk
Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, numerous options that might be considered impractical or even bizarre under normal circumstances are at least under discussion, including postponing fall sports until spring. Flipping fall and spring sports is also a distant possibility, given there are fewer sports in the moderate- and higher-risk category played in the latter than the former.
Lower-risk sports, those the NFHS defines as possible with social-distancing rules or performed by individual athletes with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean equipment between use by competitors includes cross-country and individual running events, individual swimming events, and gold.
Moderate-risk sports, which “involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants,” include basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, gymnastics, tennis, field hockey, swimming relays and girls lacrosse.
Higher-risk sports which “involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants” include football, wrestling, boys’ lacrosse, competitive cheer and dance.
According to the task-force discussion, delaying the fall season outright, flipping fall and spring, or other configurations under consideration could give enough time for greater protections to be in place, or even a vaccine to be available, providing some semblance of normalcy. Organized on-campus practices are currently scheduled to begin August 24, though many fall sports rely on informal preseason workouts. Guidance for those is still being formulated.
But as with all news surrounding the pandemic, the discussion around youth sports is evolving. On June 14, four days after the NYSPHAA task-force meeting and a day where New York State reported its fewest deaths related to coronavirus (23) since the start of the pandemic, governor Andrew Cuomo said that regions of New York in Phase 3 of reopening will be allowed to hold some sports beginning July 6. The Hudson Valley is on target to reach Phase 3 on June 23, which would open the region up to youth baseball, softball, gymnastics, crew, and cross-country. Social distancing and wearing of masks would be required, and each student could have no more than two spectators at each event.
Proceed with caution
Locally, high-school athletic directors are proceeding with caution and care. And they are also awaiting the results of the 2020-21 budget vote, which should be known soon.
“First and most importantly, everyone should know that this situation is very fluid and changes almost daily,” said Dominic Zarrella, athletics director in Saugerties. “It is the intent to reintroduce athletics in a safe manner that follows the guidelines. The district is following the guidelines. I have conducted business from the AD’s office as if we are proceeding. That includes preparing a list to recommend coaches to the superintendent for the 2020-21 school year. We will proceed with (school board) approval once we are certain that the budget passes and all programs are in place.”
For the time being, fall sports are proceeding as though they will take place. That’s partly due to the significant amount of preparation that goes into the start of a sports season.
“Coaches are in contact with their athletes,” Zarrella said. “As an example, our football staff is currently using Google Classroom to deliver our playbook and signal calls. This is being done virtually. We cannot have any face-to-face contact with athletes. That includes weight-room conditioning. Hopefully, as we progress in the phases as outlined by (New York State), we will be able to start that training; I do not believe that will be a possibility till mid-July at the earliest. That is also fluid; I think it will be later than that.”
The Kingston district (KCSD) has the greatest number of fall sports options in Ulster County, including football, field hockey, boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer, volleyball, cross-country, girls’ swimming, girls’ tennis and cheerleading. Rich Silverstein, the district’s athletics director, is also proceeding with the notion that there will be a fall sports season in the fall.
Some options are unpopular
“I have been in touch with our fall coaches and we are enrolling fall athletes now, thinking ‘business as usual’ for fall athletics,” said Silverstein. “I am planning on ordering all of our equipment, uniforms and preparing games and scrimmages and our facilities in early July, once more specific guidelines are given to us by our superintendent. Our coaches have begun to contact athletes, and will be updating our athletes as the summer progresses. If we do have our full complement of teams, then a lengthy preseason coaches’ meeting will take place covering everything from safety protocols, masks, security, fans, transportation and all other aspects of providing a safe environment.” Kingston will be taking direction from its superintendent on a safe environment for its athletes and coaches, if permitted to open up once again.
Silverstein said that the KCSD’s re-entry committee for the upcoming school year is working in consultation with health experts, and there’s an athletics-specific committee as well. “I have my own re-entry team for Kingston athletics, where we are focused on specific Kingston-related facilities and our own athletes, Dietz Stadium, Miller athletic complex, KHS turf field, our many practice locations around the city, locker rooms and gyms are all areas our committee is preparing for once our school district makes announcements about both school and extracurricular activities.”
Combining fall and spring sports in spring 2021 is under discussion by the NSYPHAA task force, though there hasn’t been a lot of enthusiasm for the idea locally. “Combining fall with spring sports would be extremely challenging for us,” said Kim Pilla, athletics director in the Onteora school district (OCSD). “A number of factors such as field usage, transportation, (and) scheduling are a few areas that would be negatively impacted. Student-athletes would need to choose between sports as many participate in multiple sports. Many of our coaches are two- and three-sport coaches, which would also be a huge issue if we needed to combine seasons.”
Silverstein said the district could conceivably adapt mixed or overlapping seasons. “It would not be ideal, but we are Kingston and can handle any roadblock,” he said. “If we are asked to make any adjustments, I have a group of teachers, coaches and staff called the Kingston Athletic Council that would be gathered and guide me to make good decisions on behalf of our district.”
Onteora officials are waiting until they have a clearer picture of the fall sports season before going into detail with student-athletes. That includes the possible combination of fall and spring seasons.
“There have not yet been any discussions with student-athletes about the potential of combining seasons,” Pilla said. “My understanding is that this possibility is in a preliminary discussion phase. We will wait to hear on how this unfolds and make the appropriate decisions once we have more information. Our hope is to be able to have our student-athletes back on the fields in the fall where they can enjoy athletic competition as they have in a safe and healthy way.”
Zarrella said that discussions have been taken place with Saugerties student-athletes since mid-March. “The most difficult aspect regarding this situation was telling athletes that their spring season was over,” said Zarrella. Discussions aren’t focusing on a combined fall-spring season. “I have not discussed picking a spring-versus-fall sport with any athletes. I do not believe that this is a plausible scenario based on the discussions I have had in Section (IX).”