By Keith Harrington
If one thing has become obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is to not make any long-term plans because the situation changes at a rapid pace.
Just when school superintendents and athletic directors were starting to become frustrated over the lack of guidance for the start of the school year and sports in the fall, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state Education Department and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association each made announcements last week that unveiled the framework of what the 2020-2021 school year would look like.
With the scheduled beginning of practice in August drawing near, school administrators were concerned that if they didn’t receive guidance about reopening schools from Cuomo’s office soon, the chance of having fall sports would become slimmer.
“We have zero guidance from the governor’s office to date,” Whitehall school superintendent Patrick Dee said last Monday. “The longer he drags his feet and refuses to provide the specific guidance that we need, the less likely that there can or will be a season in my opinion.”
Granville school superintendent Thomas McGurl took a similar stance.
“I am hoping that sports will be run as normal or as close to as normal as possible,” McGurl stated. “Without any New York State guidance to date, I am unsure how realistic that may be.”
The very day that both superintendents issued their opinions, Cuomo announced that schools would be permitted to resume in-person instruction if the number of Covid-19 infections remains low. To be allowed to open the region where a school is located must be in Phase 4 and the daily infection rate has to be lower than 5% for a 14-day rolling average.
If the infection rate rises past 9% for a seven-day rolling average, schools will go back to remote learning. Students will be required to wear masks but could take them off during instruction if proper social distancing is maintained.
Also last Monday the state Education Department issued preliminary guidance to help schools to reopen. Schools would be required to perform health checks and screenings, develop plans to address social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, as well as implement plans to support the social and emotional well-being of students.
On Thursday NYSPHAA voted to delay the official start date of the fall 2020 sports season until Sept. 21, cancel the fall 2020 regional and state championships and prepare to implement a condensed season schedule in January 2021 if high school sports remain prohibited throughout 2020 due to COVID-19.
“As the state considers reopening, it is unrealistic to believe athletic seasons can start on August 24 as originally scheduled,” said Paul Harrica, NYSPHSAA president. “The priority will continue to be on the educational process and a return to learning in the safest way possible.”
Granville athletic director Justin Nassivera was in favor of some parts of the NYSPHAA proposal if it meant getting student-athletes back on the field and courts.
“When looking over the NYSPHSAA proposals, I wouldn’t be opposed to some of the ideas being tossed around about playing some of their lower risk sports in the fall and saving some of the other higher risk sports until the spring,” Nassivera stated.
The condensed schedule, should it need to be implemented, calls for a winter sports season from Jan 4 to March 13, fall sports season from March 1 to May 8 and a spring sports season from April 5 to June 12.
Although the framework would at least allow for some variation of a sports season for the upcoming school year, it creates a whole new set of problems, especially because with the overlap of seasons some student-athletes may have to make a decision between two sports they usually participate in.
“Not just the kids, but the coaches might have to make choices,” said Whitehall athletic director Keith Redmond. “If kids have to make a choice, we may not have enough to field a team in some sports, and those sports will have to be dropped.”
Redmond also expressed concern over club sports taking student-athletes away from schools because they will go wherever they can to be able to play. The geographic scheduling outlined in the NYSPHAA plan would also eliminate games that are already scheduled and traditions such as holiday tournaments.
“Will club sports take over the high school sports?” Redmond questioned. “And all of our schedules are set for the year. Now we might not be able to play non-league games like the holiday tournament that we have had for 25 years.”
Regardless of what the 2020-2021 sports year looks like, all agree that the well-being of the student-athletes remains the priority.
“Obviously the most important thing in all of this is the safety of our student-athletes and the Granville community,” Nassivera said. “So whatever needs to be done to allow a season to happen, we will accommodate to the best of our ability.”
Redmond theorized that there may be only one real solution to getting high school athletics back safely at this point.
“The safe start for the kids will be when a vaccine Is developed,” Redmond said.