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Officials hopeful that high school sports can take place in COVID-19 world

NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas speaks to the

NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas speaks to the attendees at the First Annual Best Practice Series symposium held at the NYU Winthrop Research and Academic Center in Mineola on January 23, 2019. Credit: Peter Frutkoff

The COVID-19 outbreak on the Miami Marlins sent a shiver through more than just Major League Baseball. The reverberations were felt all the way down to the high school level, as officials in every state are considering not only how and whether to reopen schools but whether there can be interscholastic athletics.

“When you see something like the [Miami] Marlins, it just highlights the challenges and the difficulties that we as high school athletic administrators are facing,” New York State Public High School Athletic Association executive director Robert Zayas said Monday. “Still, I am hopeful.”

MLB teams are tested extensively and regularly. However, with a nod to the high costs — a COVID-19 test could run from $40 to more than $200 — the National Federation of State High School Associations is not issuing guidance requiring testing, but rather monitoring symptoms.

“Where states have resources [and] if they have the appropriate medical professionals on site that can implement thorough testing .  .  . that might be appropriate for them,” NFSHSA executive director Karissa Niehoff said when asked about testing during a Zoom news conference Monday. “If they have only resources to do a noncontact temperature check, that might be the way to do it. Certainly questionnaires are part of the preparticipation physical .  .  . looking at any flu-like or COVID-like symptoms experienced.”

“It’s not that we care any less than college [or professional] teams, but we obviously have different resources,” Zayas said. “And with different resources, we have different considerations.”

The NYPHSAA two weeks ago pushed the start of high school sports back to Sept. 21 from the last week of August. New York is one of 25 states that have altered the high school sports calendar.

There may be some cause for optimism on Long Island because many youth programs have restarted successfully. Zayas pointed to how Baseball Heaven in Suffolk is holding tournaments but limiting participants to Long Island residents. He said it is an indication that “state officials are actively working on issues in athletics.”

Niehoff acknowledged the energy around youth sports but added that there is an awareness of how the Ivy League and other Division I conferences have canceled their fall seasons. “We are different because we are education-based, and by that, we’re looking at not just [focusing] on athletics and activities but also on getting kids back to school.’’ She underscored a study that showed that students who missed out on spring school sports were three times more likely to self-report anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.

“It’s critical,” Zayas said. “It’s devastating for these kids not to have sports.”

Niehoff said the NFSHSA does not oppose playing sports at schools that have only remote learning. It is, however, concerned about students transferring from a school in a state that is not playing fall football to a school in a state that is playing the sport.

Zayas said administrators around the state will continue to wait on further guidance from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo about the reopening of schools.

He added that he was asked Monday if the waiting was “leading kids on” and said, “If there was no hope, then I would just basically say it, but I feel like we at least have some hope right now . . . that we can go ahead and get these kids participating again.”

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