While the opening of schools in New York State essentially comes down to three options — in-person, distance learning or a hybrid — the possibilities for interscholastic athletics are much more complex. If there are sports at all, athletic departments will be scrambling no matter what.
On June 30, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s COVID-19 Task Force released a five-page document of “potential scenarios” for school sports. The report included six extremely different scenarios and noted, “Until guidance and direction is provided by Governor Cuomo and the New York State Education Department, nothing can be finalized or decided upon by NYSPHSAA.”
Well, that changed on Thursday, July 16, when the task force met for a third time and announced that fall sports would be delayed until at least Monday, Sept. 21, with all regional and state tournament championships canceled. In addition, the state will be prepared to “implement a condensed season schedule in January 2021 if high school sports remain prohibited through 2020 due to COVID-19,” according to a NYSPHSAA press release.
“As the state considers reopening, it is unrealistic to believe athletic seasons can start on August 24th as originally scheduled,” NYSPHSAA president Paul Harrica said in the release. “The priority will continue to be on the educational process and a return to learning in the safest way possible.”
The condensed season plan is different than the one originally proposed by the task force and could see further changes to sports and dates. It is as follows:
- · Season 1: Jan. 4-March 13, basketball, bowling, gymnastics, ice hockey, indoor track and field, skiing, boys swimming, wrestling, cheerleading. (Wrestling and cheerleading could move to another season due to risk.)
- · Season 2: March 1-May 8, football, cross-country, field hockey, soccer, girls swimming, volleyball, unified bowling.
- · Season 3: April 5-June 12, baseball, softball, golf, lacrosse, tennis, outdoor track, unified basketball.
The NYSPHSAA also waived the seven-day practice rule, will maintain current practice requirements, encourage geographic scheduling for games and schools “would have the option, if permitted by state officials, to offer off-season conditioning workouts.”
“We recognize this is challenging for everyone, but the decisions made at the State level are based upon data and statewide infection rates all in an effort to stop the spread of COVID and reopen responsibly,” NYSPHSAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Zayas said in the release. “At this time, Department of Health guidance presented on July 13th prohibits interscholastic athletics across the state. The Association will continue to follow state guidance and will work collectively with State officials to ensure high school athletics will start up responsibly in the future. As an association, we must be willing to be flexible and continue to explore all options with students’ safety as our main focus.”
School districts have until July 31 to submit their own school reopening scenario proposals and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to make an announcement by Aug. 7 as to how schools will begin operating in the fall. Whether more on athletics will be part of that announcement remains to be seen but, until that time, school districts remain on lockdown as far as any activities or use of school grounds.
Many schools and coaches have offseason training. Scarsdale typically offers a strong strength and conditioning summer program for all athletes, which Scarsdale athletic director Ray Pappalardi believes should be happening now. The schools originally expected they would be part of New York Forward Phase 4, but that ended up only including recreation and club sports.
“Rec sports have rules and guidelines and they’re able to run right now,” Pappalardi said earlier this week. “It’s unclear to me why schools can’t run what they normally would run related to summer programming. Our strength and conditioning program could run under all social distancing guidelines in good weather, on the field. We absolutely could do that right now.”
As soon as he has the go-ahead, Pappalardi is prepared to get coaches and athletes working together once again.
“We are ready to offer whatever we are allowed to offer and right now the executive order doesn’t allow school districts to offer any organized or supervised programming,” Pappalardi said. “Right now everything is on hold.”
Scarsdale never even got preseason off the ground last spring as the school closed the first day of tryouts/practices after a middle school staff member tested positive for coronavirus. The schools never reopened, so the only contact athletes and coaches had all spring was virtual.
“I think it’s important for the kids’ social, emotional and mental wellness that we get them outside and we keep them connected to the school and to activities they care about, that are meaningful to them,” Pappalardi said. “We’re ready to do whatever we can for the kids.”
The task force’s original scenarios include:
1) Schools open as usual and sports are “as scheduled with social distancing restrictions.” (That has now been nixed.)
2/3) If school opens with a hybrid or only distance learning and athletics are allowed, the seasons would be changed and low/moderate risk sports would be played earlier in the school year, moderate/high risk later in the year over three-season or in a five-season format.
4/5) If a hybrid or distance learning start does not include athletics to start the year, there could be a three-season format that begins in January.
6) If the regions throughout the state are experiencing different COVID-19 rates, the different sections would have their own unique cancellation or running of sports.
Postseason competition would also be altered — or eliminated, most notably at the state level — based on whatever scenario happens.
Since there are more questions than answers and the different scenarios will lead to a lot of adjusting that can’t be done in advance, Pappalardi told his fall coaches not to be in touch with athletes since fall sports may be moved to another time of year. “The fall could look different,” Pappalardi said. “It’s not the direct rollout, which is upsetting.”
If the seasons are scrambled, that could lead to coaching overlaps and therefore vacancies as some coaches are involved in two and three seasons.
“The longer it takes for them to make the decision, the harder it will be for us to get going,” Pappalardi said. “Several coaches have expressed willingness to jump in wherever we need them to help out. I think it’s been incredible the way the department has come together to make sure the kids have what they need when school opens.”
Athletes also might have to choose between sports that could now occur in the same season.
Instead of a unified plan for the state, Pappalardi would like to see the adjustments made on the local level.
“I really think we need to shrink our thinking and focus on what we’re going to do as schools and what we’re going to do as leagues,” he said. “I say that because leagues are closer together and if there are any transportation issues we’ll be able to adjust for that. The schools in our league are more similar than different and we can coordinate efforts a lot easier than when you look at us by classification or by conference or by section.
“I think if we were to decentralize control a little bit and allow schools to kind of govern themselves right now and leagues to govern themselves and to look at geography as it impacts travel and decision-making I think we would be smarter about this. It’s just gotten too big and people too far away from the problem are making decisions. Everybody is waiting to hear, while right now we could be making decisions.”
At Edgemont, athletic director Anthony DeRosa’s program also stands in a holding pattern.
“We’re almost at the mid-point of July and even though right now the deaths are down and the hospitalizations are down in the area, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” DeRosa said. “It definitely hasn’t come down far enough where the governor feels we’re in a good spot and we can open up. I think everybody is being overly cautious and rightfully so. Whatever the governor says, as it trickles down the tree, everybody is going to take that direction from their supervisor.”
As a small school, Edgemont has many more conflicts for athletes if everything gets jumbled, especially for football, wrestling and boys soccer. “My suggestion was if you are going to move blocks of sports [you should] move seasons in their entirety so you don’t get those conflicts,” DeRosa said.
Separate from the pandemic plan, most of Edgemont’s team sports — baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball and basketball — are moving from Class B to Class A this year, a major jump for the program that moved up from Class C 20 years ago.
Football will remain independent for the third year.
“That’s the best spot for us,” DeRosa said. “We just don’t have enough depth. We certainly have the talent with kids like Kirk Gialleonardo and Jake Rosen and a number of other kids that are legitimate athletes and football players who can play really on any level. It’s just the amount of depth. Our numbers are always between 20 and 25 and it’s really difficult because a football season is a war of attrition. It’s about being able to stay healthy. We build in a bye week, which is extremely helpful for schools that are all in the same boat to keep us healthy and give the kids a little break. Our kids have to play both ways.”
While DeRosa would also have liked to see school sports included in Phase 4, he’s encouraged that having sports still remains on the table for the 2020-21 school year.
“They’re looking to move things around so kids don’t lose the opportunity to play their sport,” DeRosa said. “I hope [Cuomo] doesn’t say we’re not going to start the year in school. I think we really need to get back. I think the kids need to get back. That’s my feeling.”