Winter high school sports deemed low- and moderate-impact have officially been approved by New York State, with practices set to begin on Monday, November 30. With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging and infections once again on the rise, however, local school districts are still grappling with how safely to re-introduce sports within the context of their cohort-led hybrid educational models. Can it be done?
In a Monday, November 9 press release, New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) executive director Robert Zayas announced the start of the winter season. “After consultation with state officials today, the NYSPHSAA as confirmed low- and moderate-risk sports (bowling, gymnastics, indoor track and field, skiing, boys swimming and diving) are permitted to be played,” Zayas said.
The winter season’s other sports — basketball and wrestling — have been deemed high risk, with their fates yet to be determined. “At this time, authorization has not been provided for high-risk sports to begin play,” Zayas said. “The high-risk sports start date continues to be examined, and will be revised if needed, but is contingent upon authorization from state officials. We continue to examine opportunities for high-risk sports to be played with strict risk minimization efforts in place.”
All sports like football and volleyball have officially been pushed into spring by the state, with the hope of being able to open their seasons in March or April.
What will the winter sports season look like in local school districts? It varies.
Rich Silverstein, director of physical education, health and athletics in the Kingston schools said last week that Kingston plans on participating in all its winter sports that fall into the low- and moderate- impact categories. These include bowling, gymnastics, indoor track and field, alpine skiing, and boys swimming and diving.
According to the schedule on the Kingston schools website, the first event likely to take place is a boys swimming and diving meet at Pine Bush on Monday, December 7. The district’s safety protocols will impact practices and competition.
“They won’t be able to get into the water until November 30, and normally our kids train for months ahead of time, but we’re not permitting it,” Silverstein said. “At the pool, they will wear a mask until they get out of the locker room, and then they can hang it up on a hook and get in the pool. Only two kids will be allowed per lane, and we’re used to having three or four.”
Kingston schools superintendent Paul Padalino suggested that swimming competitions may sometimes take place in two different swimming pools. “I do like the idea of having remote swim meets, where our kids are swimming here and their kids are swimming there and we’re taking the times and that’s how you keep our scores,” he said. “That makes a lot of sense, and we’re not mixing school districts.”
Off-season training began last week in Kingston, described by Silverstein as both safe and non-specific.
“When I say off=season, it’s not sports-specific, and our athletic trainers running those,” Silverstein said. “Every student-athlete comes in to have a temperature check, they have to fill out a questionnaire if they didn’t already do it during the day. We have twelve feet of distancing for our training. It’s not sport-specific, so they’re not touching any equipment, they’re just sort of stretching and running and doing all-purpose kinds of workouts to strengthen their core instead of focusing on a sports-specific.”
Safety measures for indoor track may include the removal of the indoors from the equation for practice and competition. “We’re going to be doing indoor track as much as we can outdoors,” Silverstein said. “We may even have outdoor indoor track meets during December and January. We’re planning for them.”
Districts are figuring out how to hold practices and competitions for sports when not only are in-school classes being given to alternating cohorts, but how also to include students studying remotely to participate. “The Department of Education decision over the summer that any child that is fully remote hybrid remote is entitled as long as they’re enrolled in the public school district,” Silverstein said. “They’re for all of our students.”
Silverstein said that the district is still determining what participation will look like in each of its sports offerings. “I’m seeing the numbers are not quite as strong as they’ve been in the past, but I have a feeling that might change, especially since we just got our high school students back here in Kingston on Monday [November 9]. I have a feeling by the time we start around the 30th we should be close to home we’ve always had in the past. So it seems like indoor track we should be full of kids, that kind of thing.”
Padalino said the district was doing everything possible to ensure its winter sports season can open safely and successfully. “It goes back to keeping our safety protocols in place if we follow our safety protocols, even if those students are mixing in those cohorts that’s the best we can do,” he explained. “Our safety protocols and procedures are going to have to be followed and if we feel like we can’t do that we won’t have sports. We’re trying to find some things for kids to do, and I feel for them. Even if we have to have some strict protocols, giving them the opportunity to participate in something other than home is really important.”
Districts follow guidelines
Other districts are following different paths. Saugerties currently offers just one winter sport in the low- and moderate-risk categories: bowling. District athletic director Dom Zarrella last week said that Saugerties has yet to sort out the logistics of holding a safe bowling season. “This will be a district decision,” Zarrella said. “Right now we are on a hybrid schedule and we are not mixing cohorts. For us to participate in bowling we will need to approve the mixing of cohorts and also approve possible mixing with the community as bowling practices and events are in the public bowling alley [Saugerties Bowlers Club].”
Should the district proceed with bowling, Zarrella said they would adhere to policy guidelines issued by Section IX. “They are rather expansive and include temp checks, mask wearing, private water bottles and constant sanitation,” Zarrella said. “In addition, for contests, student information (e-mail addresses, phone numbers) will have to be provided to the host schools for contact tracing purposes.”
Saugerties is also looking at further adjustments in the winter sports season, and may consider doing so for the rescheduled fall and spring seasons as well. “Shorter seasons and varsity only participation are on the table,” Zarrella said. “If we go that route we would expand rosters to try to get as many students participating as possible. We are also considering whether or not to allow spectators at events. I think it is unlikely we will allow spectators. Fortunately, we are equipped to live-stream events from our gym and football field.”
Onteora scjools superintendent Victoria McLaren, Onteora has yet to decide whether to participate in low- and moderate-risk winter sports, which in the district includes indoor track and skiing. “We are reviewing the viability of offering winter sports,” McLaren said last week. “We are not certain that we will be able to offer these sports in an equitable manner while operating in the current 50 percent hybrid learning model at the secondary level.”
An additional concern in Onteora is geographical.
“If athletics are offered, all students must be allowed to participate,” McLaren said. “The district would not be required to provide transportation for those students participating in the remote learning model, or those students in the hybrid model that are not on campus on a given day. This likely would create an inequitable environment, or an environment in which students are likely to carpool in order to participate. Some districts in our area that are planning to participate in athletics are insisting that students go home on the bus after school and find their own transportation to practice. This would be a hardship for many of our families given the geography of Onteora.”
Onteora is keeping an eye on the ongoing conversation about the possible return of high-risk winter sports. “Our athletic director, coaches, student-athletes and parents are all monitoring the statewide discussions closely,” McLaren said. “Sports are extremely important to many students. The continuing rise in rates of positivity of Covid is likely not helping to create a situation that is amenable to high-risk sports.”
Greg Warren, the New Paltz school district’s director of health, physical education and athletics, said New Paltz is planning to participate in all of its low- and moderate-risk winter sports. These include indoor track and field, boys swimming and diving, gymnastics and Nordic skiing. He said he expects once the district figures out the logistics of mixing cohorts and students who have been studying remotely they should have good participation in all their winter sports.
“I actually just answered an e-mail for a [remote] student about a half hour ago,” Warren said. “It’s different but we’re planning to go forward and do the best we can with it.”
Warren said he would like to see the winter season’s high-risk sports approved as well. “It’ll happen a little bit down the road is my guess, but I don’t know for sure,” he said. “There’s supposed to be more guidance coming out on basketball and wrestling soon. I’m hopeful that it can happen.”
Warren added that guidance from Section IX and from the district’s own safety protocols should allow the winter sports season should be a success. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “As long as we can do anything that’s safe for our student-athletes we want to try to do it.”