Fate of high school sports to be decided this week

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

This Thursday, September 10, the fate of high-school fall sports will be decided by the Section IX Athletic Council, which is slated to meet via Zoom. Although governor Andrew Cuomo gave the green light for fall varsity sports to begin practice on September 21 – with “low-risk” sports like cross-country running, soccer and girls’ swimming able to compete within their region and “high-risk” sports like football, cheerleading and volleyball limited solely to practice with no scrimmages or games – the state provided very little guidance, leaving each district and section to make its own determinations.

“The governor made his announcement and it got everyone excited – kids, parents – but we were given no guidelines as to how we’re supposed to do this,” said Section IX executive director Greg Ransom. When guidelines did eventually come in from the state, Ransom said that they were “no longer than one paragraph.”

The Section IX Athletic Council consists of 18 individuals including athletic directors (ADs), superintendents, high-school principals, a male and a female physical education teacher and Mid-Hudson Athletic League (MHAL) and Orange County Interscholastic Athletic Association (OCIAA) representatives. Section IX encompasses Ulster, Orange and Sullivan counties.

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New York State high-school athletic sections are finding themselves in the same position in which school districts found themselves when the governor announced that they could open in August. It’s a bottom-up type of governance, with each school district deciding how it’s going to reopen safely, and then each section (there are eleven in the state) having to decide if it’s going to move forward with fall sports, and if so, how.

In the absence of direct guidelines from the state, Section IX’s parent organization, the New York State Public School Athletic Association (NYSPSAA), released a 49-page document this past week with instructions and guidelines on how fall sports can maintain compliance with New York State Department of Health and CDC Covid 19 standards while allowing the kids to play. Ransom said that the Section IX task force put together back in the spring was reviewing this document and had already reviewed the May National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) guidelines on how young athletes could get back to playing sports with safety mitigations in place.

According to NYPSAA guidelines, face coverings will be required for practice and competition in sports where it’s not possible to maintain six feet of social distance, “unless players are unable to tolerate a face covering for the physical activity,” the document stated. Coaches and trainers must always have masks on, as do athletes on the sidelines (reconfigured to allow for proper spacing). There will be a hydration/mask break in soccer.

Mandatory health screenings will be conducted to identify potential Covid 19 cases. Handshakes, fist bumps, high-fives, chest bumps and hugging are now banned. Spectators are limited to only two per athlete. Only essential personnel will be allowed on-site for practices and games, although media will be allowed on-site and must follow district rules. Locker rooms may be closed.

How will the decision go?

“Participation in interscholastic athletics is certainly voluntary for both the individuals and the schools. NYSPHSAA recognizes school district superintendents and boards of education have the authority and autonomy to administer their district’s athletic programs as they deem appropriate,” the document read.

In reference to the document, the New York State Athletic Administrators’ Association wrote on its @NYSAAA6 Twitter account: “ADs will be collaborating with their respective superintendents as to how to proceed. We all know there are many obstacles to overcome and want nothing more than to get kids playing … safely and responsibly.”

What will Section IX do? Two neighboring sections in Long Island that are known for being huge sports fans and participants called for the vote; Section VIII (Nassau County) came out against allowing sports to begin until January while Section XI (Suffolk County) voted unanimously to begin playing this fall. Section I (Putnam, Dutchess, Westchester and Rockland) voted to move forward with sports, but delayed the date to September 29.

“I have no idea how the vote is going to go,” said Ransom. “Superintendents of most of these schools are trying to figure out how to get students back into the schools safely. That is their focus, as the vast majority of these schools are beginning the school year remotely. As the executive director of Section IX, I want to say, ‘Let’s start playing!’ but I’m not a superintendent trying to get a building open and kids into the classroom.”

Even if students are in school remotely, they are considered eligible to play if they’re taking at least three or four high-school courses, according to a recent change in the state guidelines.

What the athletic directors say

“I’m hoping for the best-case scenario and want to move forward with high-school sports as soon as we can do it safely,” said New Paltz High School athletic director Greg Warren. If given the go-ahead by Section IX and the New Paltz school district, he is “ready.” He has coaches who are more than willing to step up and get the proverbial ball rolling.

“This spring was tough on our student athletes,” said Warren. The entire 2020 spring season was lost due to school closures in response to the public-health crisis. “Especially the seniors. They won’t get that chance again.”

Kingston High School athletic director Richard Silverstein said that Kingston schools superintendent Dr. Paul Padalino would have to consult with the local health department and school physician regarding Kingston participation if Section IX makes a determination to move forward on fall sports Once those decisions are made, Silverstein said, he will know whether the district is starting on September 21, “or if Plan B the state NYSPSAA has given us will be implemented.” 

Plan B, as outlined by NYSPSAA, was to delay all sports until January 2021 and run three condensed ten-week seasons, with winter sports going first, then fall sports and ending with spring sports.

Dominic Zarrella, Saugerties High School’s athletic director, as well as the football and wrestling coach, said Saugerties was prepared to move forward once Section IX makes a decision. “We are not registering students right now, as a decision has not been made,” he said. “I am on the Section IX Task Force and can tell you that we are awaiting guidelines from the governor’s office that go beyond possible start dates. Some of these guidelines include locker-room procedures, busing policies, and level of play. With the majority of school districts starting virtually, the 9/21 date is problematic.”

Zarrella’s feeling was that every school in the section will follow the same policy, thus helping with scheduling geographically and cutting down on confusion. “Our intent is to have our athletes play safely,” he said. “If I had to guess, I think the January start date with three ten-week seasons will be the preferred option.”

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NYSPSAA this summer said that there would be no state championships for fall sports. As Ransom noted, that decision is not likely to change. “Even if the low-risk sports began on September 21, bids for the venues where state championships are played would have had to go out months ago. And most of our championships are held at college venues, which are closed to outside groups right now.”

Section IX isn’t bound to September 21 or January 2021. It could vote to extend the commencement of fall sports past September 21. Recently the date for the start of winter sports was changed from November 16 to November 30 in order to give fall sports teams more time to complete their seasons. 

A baseball game in progress at the Cantine Veteran’s Complex in Saugerties.

Lively public discourse

Some believe that keeping children from participating in school sports is causing greater risks than possible exposure or transmission of the Covid virus. “We’re hurting the kids that we always hurt,” said one retired teacher who lives in Kingston, but wanted to remain anonymous due to having relatives that work in the district. “I live in Kingston, and I see them on the streets because they have nothing to do.”

The divide between the haves and the have-nots just keeps growing, this ex-teacher said, and it wasn’t fair. “The families that have money are sending their kids to private schools. They’re making sure that their kids get tutors, are taking SAT prep courses, are doing club sports and travel sports and art lessons. The other kids? They’re losing the only opportunities they have through public education and high-school sports and activities. For what reason?”

Some of the parents, coaches, student athletes, local government representatives who are advocating for the reopening of school sports have banded together via a Facebook group called New Yorkers for School Athletics – Let Us Play 2020. Members cite increased rates of depression among student athletes and high incidences of suicide attempts as some of the unintended consequences of children not being able to engage in varsity sports.

(See sidebar story of a New Paltz school board meeting last week at which the subject of priorities was discussed.)

Pam Pece, a mother of New Paltz student athletes, is one of the supporters of giving sports a higher priority. She recently put together a Section IX Let Them Play Facebook advocacy group for athletics. She believes that high-school sports should begin as soon as possible.

“Club sports have been playing this summer. Other states have been playing sports for more than a month, football included, and have been doing fine,” she said. “Of course, there will be positive [Covid determinations], but at some point we have to as a society learn to live with this. In my opinion, the effects of children not having the ability to play sports is going to do more harm than good. If private schools, Catholic schools and prep schools can safely play, then why can’t public school children be afforded the same opportunity?”

She said that the lack of public high-school sports was having a negative impact on student athletes. “For some students, high school sports are all they have,” she said “Playing sports in high school is not only about competing, but playing alongside your classmates and friends and showing pride for one’s school and community. Studies are showing that having the ability to participate in sports is being increasingly linked to depression in student athletes. I think districts should be ready to go …. Athletes have always had to sign a waiver that they understand the risks of playing a sport. This is no different. Families should be able to make this decision for their children, not the school.”

Doug Thompson, a local business-owner, father and coach for both high school and club sports, concurred that in his estimation, it’s time to let the kids play. “I feel it is imperative that the kids be able to do sports,” he said in response to questions. “The travel leagues and swim clubs have done it all summer. These kids need sports to maintain their physical health and mental well-being. I dropped my daughter off at college and I saw first-hand what having teammates and coaches can do for a young adult: Night-and-day from having her sport taken away in this past spring to how she’s feeling now that she can play. She is happy to be outside, while practicing all safe distancing protocols, and playing the sport she loves [lacrosse]. I feel, if the districts do it right, it should not be an issue.”

Moira Roberts, a public-school teacher and mother of a college and high-school athlete, thought that not having the fall sports was definitely having a negative effect on young athletes. “They aren’t training like they are used to, and are missing the social interactions with their teammates and coaches, which is so critical to their overall health and growth,” she said. “They are losing the competitive drive that their sport gives them, and that they need in life. Also, if they can’t compete, and they’re juniors and seniors, how are college coaches going to see them play? It’s hurting them on so many levels.”

What the research shows

According to news report by National Public Radio, a nationwide survey of student athletes conducted by the University of Wisconsin, suggests that the cancellation of youth sports since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on the mental health and well-being of adolescents.

“The results of the study are both striking and concerning,” said Dr. Claudia Reardon, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “We know that exercise and physical activity are powerful antidepressant and anti-anxiety interventions, and we strongly encourage public health experts and school administrators to thoughtfully consider both the benefits and risks of prolonged school closures and sport cancellations.”

Some studies have contended that younger children are at lower risk for contracting Covid 19 compared to adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of July 17, 2020, the United States reported that children and adolescents under 18 years old account for under seven percent of positive cases and less than 0.1 percent of Covid-related deaths. Recently, however, a spate of Covid outbreaks among younger Americans have cast doubt on the validity of the earlier statistics. Young people without Covid symptoms can still infect others.  

While the governor can give the verbal green light and NYPSAA can provide guidelines and suggested protocols for coaches and athletes to follow, and each section can vote on when they are going to start to play, ultimately the final decision lies with each school district.

Concerns about moving forward

The New York State Council of School Superintendents (COSS) wrote a letter to the governor asking him to change his decision and delay all school sports until January 2021.

“Authorizing school athletics could jeopardize successful resumption of in-person learning for students,” wrote the COSS executive director Charles Dedrick. “We have struggled to reconcile why students in physical education classes must be twelve feet apart per reopening guidance, yet contact athletics and other activities that regularly bring athletes into close proximity are deemed safe at this time. 

“Students need to be in school, with their friends and teachers, as soon as possible. School leaders need to be focused on this effort and not have their attention diverted to extracurricular activities at this moment. It is our view that school athletics will risk this endeavor, and that is not a compromise we believe should be taken.” 

At a meeting of the Onteora school board last week, school superintendent Victoria McLaren pointed out a disconnect between strict rules designed to keep students safe during the day and the lack of guidelines for after-school sports. The school reopening plans “were required to include compliance with social distancing rules and keeping students in cohorts so that we didn’t have a lot of intermingling,” McLaren said. Those include twelve feet of social distancing in physical education classes when students participate in aerobic activity.

“And so it seems very counterproductive to me and very illogical to think that schools need to abide by those restrictions and rules during the day and then somehow after the school day is over, those rules would not be applicable,” McLaren said. “As if Covid is suddenly not contagious after the school bell rings.”

McLaren called the current athletics situation too risky “It’s just a very dangerous situation to put everyone in and I completely understand that our students need outlets and they need to be engaged,” she said. “But I feel that we would be professionally remiss if we were to follow all the rules during the day and then somehow assume they don’t apply in the afternoon.”

Ransom said that a press release would be issued as soon as the meeting of the Section IX Athletic Council was concluded.

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