If the idea of high-risk winter sports like basketball, wrestling and cheerleading with little prep time during the Covid-19 pandemic seemed like a tall order to you, you’re not alone. The Kingston City School District and Saugerties Central School District last week were among those locally to opt out of a February-only return of sports previously deemed too dangerous. The New Paltz School District approved varsity and junior varsity basketball; the modified teams will not be included due to lack of space for safe practicing. New Paltz trustees declined to approve other sports that are open for consideration in Section 9, including wrestling and cheerleading.
Following months of delays due to the ongoing pandemic, local school officials were surprised late last month by the sudden approval of high-risk sports by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, the State Department of Health and the county executives of the seven counties of the Hudson Valley, including Ulster. The decision would have allowed for winter sports like basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading to get underway as early as Monday, February 1, and after six required practices competition could have begun for some programs as soon as Monday, February 8; a blizzard that buried the region in snow on February 1 would push those dates ahead a day or two for most districts. In a joint press release, the seven county executives cited a review of the state’s “Interim Guidance for Sports and Recreation during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency” published on Friday, January 22 as being instrumental in their collective determination that sports could proceed.
But while local school officials expressed a desire to see high-risk winter sports return, they questioned the ability to keep everyone safe with such a quick turnaround. As it currently stands, the winter sports season is scheduled to end on Sunday, February 28, and there will be no Mid-Hudson Athletic League (MHAL) or Orange County Interscholastic Athletic Association (OCIAA) playoffs. The fall II sports season, is scheduled to get underway on Monday, March 1 and would run through Saturday, May 1. The spring sports season is scheduled to begin on Monday, April 19.
During a Kingston City School District (KCSD) Board of Education meeting held on Wednesday, February 3, trustees said that while they understood the value of having student-athletes be able to participate, the health risks to kids and the community at large were too great.
“I’d love to see the kids playing, but in a closed space, and you’re talking about people using loud voices, heavy respiration, all the things we’ve been warned about that spread this disease,” said trustee Suzanne Jordan. “And I’m just not comfortable. I wish I could say, oh great, we’re over this and we should be encouraging our kids to participate in everything fully. But as much as I wish that were true, I don’t believe it’s true. I don’t think I can support this.”
Fellow Trustee Herb Lamb agreed. “To have sports and put our students, our parents, our grandparents in this community is wrong, and our teachers, for that matter, that have to teach these kids when they come to class,” Lamb said. “Someone has to be an adult in this situation, and I will not support high-risk sports this year or any year until everyone in this community is vaccinated…There’s a reason they’re called ‘high-risk.’”
KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino said that while the message from the state and county was that it was safe to proceed, the district’s own medical director, Dr. Walter Woodley, disagreed.
The KCSD Board of Education voted against allowing high-risk winter sports to proceed, but it opted to hold off on voting on allowing high-risk fall and spring sports, mostly played outdoors, until their next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, February 18.
Like Kingston, Saugerties will also not allow high-risk winter sports to proceed. In a message dated February 3 and posted to the district website, superintendent Kirk Reinhardt explained the district’s decision to disallow winter high-risk sports from proceeding.
“Over the last several days, I have had numerous conversations with the district’s physician, athletic director, administrative cabinet and the Board of Education,” Reinhardt wrote. “Due to the available time frame and complexity of implementing these requirements and the increased risk to student’s safety due to the high risk of indoor sports, it is with deep regret that I have made the very difficult decision that the district will not be able to participate in basketball or wrestling this season. The time and resources needed to create and implement a thoughtful and safe plan that meets the Ulster County Department of Health (UCDOH) requirements is not realistic for the indoor winter season, which ends on February 28.”
Reinhardt said that he spent over two decades coaching high school football, track and wrestling, and he understood the importance of athletics and extracurricular activities, adding that canceling basketball and wrestling “was a painful decision to make.”
“We have had a very challenging time in public education since March 13, 2020 and I know that many of our students have already missed out on so much,” wrote Reinhardt. “After weighing all of the potential risks and possible outcomes, I have overwhelming concerns regarding the participation of our students in indoor high-risk sports at this time. One of the most important responsibilities I have is to ensure the safety of students, faculty, staff and their families. I believe this decision is in the best interest of all parties. My goal is to have our students return to school full-time without any major disruptions to learning due to Covid-19 cases.”