Are high-risk sports feasible if Gov. Cuomo signs off? Some superintendents believe so

Mike Dougherty
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

They have been calling audibles since the beginning of this pandemic.

Superintendents across the Hudson Valley appear ready and willing to adjust on the fly should Gov. Andrew Cuomo greenlight high-risk sports, but they are primarily focused on keeping what is essentially a schoolhouse of cards intact.

There is a call for updated guidance, but the administrators have refrained from getting involved with a growing #LetThemPlay movement.

Horace Greeley defeats Mount Vernon 46-35 to claim boys basketball Class AA section championship trophy at the Westchester County Center in White Plains on Sunday, March 8, 2020.

“We don’t know at the moment whether or not there will be an opportunity to engage in the so-called high-risk sports,” said Joseph Ricca, who is the White Plains schools superintendent and the president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents. “That is one of the biggest challenges we have right now. You have kids waiting and wondering if this is the day we find out whether they’re going to be able to play or if this is the day the season is postponed or cancelled. … We need a timeline. It’s the uncertainty that is causing the consternation and the frustration.”

There hasn’t been a single update by a member of the governor’s inner circle since Nov. 9.  

Individual school districts have the last word on proceeding, but that's only if Cuomo believes the infection rate and hospitalization rate are heading toward acceptable levels and grants permission for high-risk sports winter sports like basketball, hockey and wrestling to begin competing.

New Jersey and Connecticut are currently moving forward. Some administrators in New York would like the state to follow suit.

Joseph Ricca, the Superintendent of the White Plains Public Schools, is pictured in the library/media center at the Post Road School in White Plains, Sept. 11, 2020.

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“We support starting the high-risk sports safely with guidance from the State Department of Health and the NYSPHSAA,” superintendent of Brewster schools Laurie Bandlow said. “The safety of our students, athletes, coaches and community is of utmost importance to us. We have planned for offseason workouts, although we have not hosted many. We feel with more guidance from the appropriate departments, we can plan for all safety requirements, host the high-risk sports, and provide the traditional athletic experience.”

There are only so many days on the calendar, though.

Low- and moderate-risk sports like swimming, track, bowling and skiing are under way. With strict adherence to protocols already in place, a number of district leaders in the region believe it’s possible to play basketball and hockey in the coming weeks.

There is some doubt about wrestling, due to extreme levels of contact.

A wide majority of the schools in Section 1 have experience with the CDC and DOH protocols after completing the fall season. The additional issues are related to moving sports indoors and locking the door to spectators.

“I think up this point we’ve seen that district leaders and educators have been resilient and we continue to pivot and deal with everything we’ve been faced with," Ossining Union Free School District superintendent Ray Sanchez said. “We implemented the protocols in the fall to make sure interscholastic sports could be played in relative safety. I think we’d do the same going forward. Physical space is an issue for some districts because a number of schools have utilized gymnasiums as classrooms. There are other issues that might prevent schools from participating in every sport.

"Whatever the decisions are, there has to be enough notice so districts can problem solve and put things in place in a timely fashion. One week to the next doesn’t help us. We need to be prepared to answer questions and make sure protocols are in place because running athletic programs is not easy."

Putnam Valley defeated Marlboro 66-49 in girls basketball regional playoff action at Putnam Valley High School March 11, 2020.

By the numbers

For those keeping score at home, there were less than 700 hospitalizations statewide related to COVID-19 in late September when the fall season got under way. Right now, that number is north of 9,200. The positivity rate is declining and is currently 6.34%, according to the state Department of Health.

A handful of micro clusters remain across Orange, Rockland and Westchester.

There are mutated strains of the virus making the rounds, prompting concern of increased spread and increased hospitalization. Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has contributed to nearly 33,000 deaths across the state.

A related financial crisis is also impacting each community.

Superintendents do run the risk of appearing tone deaf to the community at large if they sign on to a damn-the-torpedoes approach.

“We will consider high-risk competition, if allowed, in ways that would be consistent with our re-opening plans where we will prioritize safety, which means we would need to be able to maintain our cohorts, and equity,” said Kim Fontana, the superintendent of schools in Pawling, which opted against participating in sports in the fall. 

Suffern celebrates a goal against Eastchester/Tuckahoe/Bronxville/Edgemont during the Section 1 Division 1 hockey championship at the Brewster Ice Arena March 1, 2020. Suffern defeated ETBE 5-1.

Districts in yellow zones are mandated by the state to test 20 percent of the student population and those numbers indicate that schools are generally safer than surrounding communities.

“We’ve taken that route here,” added Sanchez, who reported a positivity rate less of 1.41% heading into the holiday break. “I think the most valuable resource we have is information.”

Numbers collected through December showed a similar positivity rate in Tarrytown and Suffern.

“If we’re looking at the whole experience of the student, it’s necessary to get them back to normal, whatever that means,” Nanuet athletic director Phil Carbone said. “We’ll have to be diligent and there may be pauses, but I don’t think we should be sitting here thinking it’s OK to have an indefinite stoppage. We have to start moving in a direction to reach important milestones for these young adults.”

Michigan has been monitoring high school athletes via rapid testing and the state’s department of health recently reported that 99.6% of them came back negative. The study included football and volleyball, which are considered high-risk sports.

According to statewide contact tracing from September to November, sports were responsible for 1.04% of the spread. State officials have not specified whether the positive cases were the result of interscholastic sports or club sports.

The enforcement level of protocols often differs between the two, especially in regard to mask wear.

“I think we owe everyone a look at the data being used to make these decisions,” Ricca said. “By the way, it’s OK to say, ‘We don’t know.’ It’s OK to say, ‘I care about you and think you could get sick if you’re on a wrestling mat, so we’re not going to wrestle this year.’ The kids will be upset, but at least they’ll know and can start to make alternate plans for training. I think it’s the direction we all want to go and I think we’ll get there, but it’s taking a long time.

“And it’s nobody’s fault.”

Action from the Class B Regional Boys Basketball Semifinal between Marlboro and Hastings on March 11, 2020.

Changing the momentum

The release of an NCAA well-being survey provided a glimpse inside the heads of collegiate athletes sidelined last spring by the pandemic.

The results were unnerving. Participants reported a number of emotional barriers were impacting their ability to train with 43% expressing a fear of exposure to COVID-19, 40% expressing a lack of motivation, 21% expressing feelings of stress or anxiety and 13% expressing sadness or depression.

High school athletes have also been on edge.

“We are committed to doing everything in our power to get our students back into our classrooms and on our fields,” Monroe-Woodbury Central School District superintendent Elsie Rodriguez said. “This pandemic has taken a toll on our students, both mentally and physically, and we know that active participation in athletics will help bring back some normalcy to their lives. Moving forward with these types of activities is critical.”

There is also concern that this shutdown will force more athletes to focus on club sports, which are pay-to-play enterprises.

Most are training several times a week and have the ability to cross state lines to compete.

“The equity and access for all students is being skewed because our hands are tied,” Carbone said. “Affluent families are getting on planes and going to wrestling tournaments. That’s not something available to a majority of people in the district. There are families who have the wherewithal in every sport. What are we doing for the athletes who rely on high school sports for that emotional growth?

“We would never allow that level of disparity in the classroom.”

Dr. Laurie Bandlow, superintendent of the Brewster Central School District, on the high school football field Jan. 31, 2020 in Brewster.

A push to advocate started by the Section One Football Coaches Association is gaining support across the state. There’s a change.org petition circulating. It had more than 7,500 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

Letters from the Lower Hudson Basketball Coaches Association and the Section One Girls Basketball Coaches Association were recently sent to athletic directors and state representatives.

It’s unclear whether the efforts have gotten the attention of decision-makers in Albany.

“Some do understand the situation. Some don’t understand,” SOGBCA president and Ossining girls basketball coach Dan Ricci said. “I’m more in the middle. I want to play when it's safe. We just want to make sure we’re not forgotten about, so we sent a unified message. There’s a stigma about us playing indoors, but we wouldn’t be in school right now if we weren’t safe. If basketball got approved, I’m 99.9 percent sure we wouldn’t have fans. It’s doable. We have all these proposals out there, but we can’t do anything until we get some guidance.”

Minisink Valley's Zack Ryder wrestles Port Chester's Ivan Garcia

Waiting games are not fun.

“To the athletes, coaches and parents, everybody hears you,” Ricca said. “We all want our kids back on the court, back on the mat, back on the ice. When we were able to offer those opportunities in the fall, we did it. When we were able to bring in offseason training, we did it.”

As the days count down to February, optimism is fading.

There is a real possibility basketball, hockey and wrestling might not get up and running in New York unless the COVID-19 metrics improve dramatically.

“Everyone in this community has been very respectful and understanding of the decisions that have been made, across the board,” Sanchez said. “They understand our ultimate goal is to ensure the safety of our students and staff. These programs are extremely valuable to us. People want to see things get back to ‘normal.' You just explain what is going on and where you can, you will, and where you can’t, you won’t. In the end, we’re making the best possible decisions while knowing they may not be the most popular decisions.”

Mike Dougherty covers boys soccer, boys lacrosse, girls basketball and golf for The Journal News/lohud.com. He can be reached at mdougher@lohud.com, or on Twitter @hoopsmbd, @lohudlacrosse, @lohudhoopsmbd and @lohudgolf.