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High schools not ready for sports

   Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

As New York struggles to navigate COVID-19 and limit the damage of its dislocations, one priority has to be established for everything else to come together.

The priority must be school. That priority can’t be school sports, regardless of how important and beneficial these programs are to students, the high school experience and the fabric of community life.

That’s why the decision by Nassau County’s council of school superintendents to postpone the fall sports schedule and play the entire year of school sports in the spring makes sense. The vote by the governing body for high school athletics in Suffolk County went a different route and will allow lower-risk sports to begin practice and play on Sept. 21. 

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Monday that “low-risk sports” — soccer, tennis, cross country, field hockey and swimming — could begin playing Sept. 21, and the higher-risk fall sports of football and volleyball could begin practicing on that date but not play games “until a later date or Dec. 31.” That doesn't make sense.

It’s not clear why volleyball, for instance, is a higher risk than soccer or field hockey. But that's not the issue. The larger problem is that allowing the teams to practice risks spreading the virus in school buildings, jeopardizing all of the precautions districts are taking to ensure student and teacher safety. One sports-related outbreak can shutter classrooms.

We’ve already seen outbreaks from some returns to professional and college sports, as Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas was besieged by a coronavirus outbreak and clusters in Major League Baseball have tattered schedules. The same is true of college training camps, and high school summer training. 

At one Illinois high school, 211 students had to be quarantined after athletes participating in football, dance and baseball camps tested positive last month. In a district located outside of Oklahoma City, 17 students participating in basketball, football and cheerleading training tested positive after passing district health screenings, and those programs had to be suspended.

When our schools close, society is disrupted. The hastily planned distance-learning experience this spring was lacking for most, and nonexistent for too many. And the shift played havoc with the work responsibilities and child care needs of many parents.

For children to get the education they need and for society to continue creeping back toward normal, school reopenings must succeed. And if outbreaks pop up, the athletes most likely will get less practice time and reduced competition. Waiting is the safer choice; all three sport seasons can be played from January to June, assuming conditions at that time point to a safe resumption of athletics.

Cuomo should do what the New York State Council of School Superintendents requested Wednesday and bar high school sports until January 2021. That would end local pressure to restart sports. And it would let schools focus on reopening safely and educating properly, which is challenge enough.

— The editorial board