In Suffolk County, 14 basketball teams and two wrestling programs...

In Suffolk County, 14 basketball teams and two wrestling programs were forced to quarantine due to positive COVID-19 tests or contract tracing. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Long Island high schools were coming to grips with the challenges of playing high-risk sports during a pandemic on Tuesday, the opening day of games for boys and girls basketball.

In Suffolk County, 14 basketball teams and two wrestling programs had to pause activities for either positive COVID-19 tests or contact tracing, according to Tom Combs, the executive director of Section XI, the county's governing body of high school sports. Combs would not say which teams were affected. Suffolk requires athletes in high-risk sports to undergo weekly testing.

"We have 16 teams currently in quarantine," Combs said. "We had to postpone a ton of games. Now the challenge is in trying to reschedule those games with very little availability left in a shortened season. The two snow days were awful in that Mother Nature really kicked us in the butt."

In Nassau County, which does not require testing, 10 basketball games had to be canceled or rescheduled because of district COVID-19 test results or contact tracing on one or both teams, according to Section VIII executive director Pat Pizzarelli.

The New Hyde Park girls basketball program had a player test positive, according to athletic director T.J. Burke, but the team holds practices in small pods of players and he said "that saved us from having to miss a bunch of games – only a few players will have to miss a little time."

New Hyde Park is one of five high schools in the Sewanhaka school district. Matt McLees, the athletic director for the entire district, is overseeing the COVID-19 testing on varsity and junior varsity programs in the high-risk sports at all five and said that Elmont and Sewanhaka also each have a program in a 10-day quarantine per Nassau Department of Health guidance.

"We began our high-risk COVID testing for all of our district teams ... [and] test one high school per day and we test five days a week," McLees said. "We followed all the protocols and we’ve done the contact tracing. Those teams will quarantine for 10 days."

Port Washington also adopted testing and uses protocols that require remote learning for athletes in high-risk sports and separate entrances and exits from the gym. Its boys basketball program is in a pause because of COVID-19 concerns and likely won’t play its first game until Feb. 22, Vikings athletic director Stephanie Joannon said.

"It would be difficult to get many games rescheduled in such a compressed season," Joannon added. "The goal was always just 'we want to get out and play’ and hopefully we’ll have that in the last week of the season."

The remote learning requirement for the high-risk athletes, Joannon said, "worked because it could have affected students and teachers in the school."

Combs said the 16 quarantined teams will likely have the next 10 days of games either rescheduled or canceled while they quarantine. In Section XI wrestling, where programs still have to meet the 10-practice minimum before competition, two programs have had to pause because of COVID-19 concerns and two others – Central Islip and East Hampton – have opted out of competition, further scrambling that schedule.

Section VIII planned an eight-game season for its boys and girls basketball programs and Section XI slated six league games and permitted six non-league games. Both sections are scheduled to have the winter sports seasons end before the March 1 start of fall sports. It will make rescheduling all the games potentially impossible.

An additional issue comes with having enough game officials to work all the contests. Pizzarelli estimated that up to half of the pool of officials for Section VIII have opted out for the truncated season.

"We’ve had officials [opting] out every day," Pizzarelli said. "You can’t schedule a game when there are no officials to work it."

Section XI is having a similar experience.

"We’re having issues with the availability of officials," Combs said. "At some games we’re looking at maybe going with one official instead of two."

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