After Tuesday’s announcement that Long Island public schools have canceled the spring sports season because of health and safety concerns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, thoughts now turn to the fall season and the decisions facing school administrations.
There are a plethora of questions without answers, more than a handful of scenarios to be considered and some measure of fear among athletes and coaches that the fall season will not come together at all.
“The state of emergency can impact the fall season,” said Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, which governs high school sports in Suffolk County. “It’s premature to say what will happen because we really don’t know what will transpire over the next few months.”
“High school athletes were thinking about when they could get back on the field a few weeks ago, and now we’ve gone from that to what happened Tuesday,” Jericho boys soccer coach Dani Braga said. “Honestly, they have a little bit of fear about whether there will be a fall season.”
Combs struck a note of optimism, saying “the fall sports season . . . can happen in a variety of ways.” Those include starting the season late or possibly playing some of the fall sports in the winter or spring seasons, though each of those options comes with ramifications.
Schools on the Island would have to be reopened for a fall sports season of any sort to take shape. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has extended the state’s stay-at-home order through May 15, meaning all school buildings are shuttered until at least that date; he has not ended the school year, as was done in more than 20 other states.
The efficacy of mitigation efforts, discovery of a vaccine or medication and arrival of a second wave of COVID-19 are among the variables that will factor into whether schools reopen this spring or can open in the fall.
Combs said the state is assembling a task force to assess a fall season and make recommendations. He added that “there are many possibilities being assessed by our superintendents and state educators” but also wondered “how are we going to play sports if we’re social distancing and wearing masks in school?”
“We lost the spring sports due to COVID-19 and we’re hoping the fall season isn’t lost,” said Pat Pizzarelli, executive director of Section VIII, the governing body for high school sports in Nassau County, “but we’re dealing with a ton of ‘what ifs.’ ”
Combs explained that delaying the start of the fall season would mean pushing back winter and spring sports as well in what he called “a domino effect.” Playing a fall sport in the winter or spring could present facilities issues as teams compete for practice and playing time on fields and in gymnasiums, which could put athletes or entire programs in a tough spot.
“Two-sport athletes [could] have to choose,” Combs said. “Smaller schools with fewer athletes would lose teams should athletes pick one sport over another. There are so many moving parts in this and as many issues to address.”
“Every scenario is on the table at this point,” Pizzarelli said.
Oceanside football coach Rob Blount said, “I could see people being afraid of the contact in any sport — even hesitant to be as close as they are in a classroom.”
Sachem East football coach Phil Torregrosa raised injury concerns. “How prepared will the players be for athletic competition if the virus curtails the work they do to get physically ready?'' he said. "There may be no 7-on-7 this summer or lineman challenges.”
The coronavirus pandemic is not the only matter threatening the fall sports season. Cuomo said the federal government has not yet delivered the funding it would pass on to municipalities for schools, hospitals and fire and police departments. On Monday, he explained that schools could be looking at a 20% cut in state aid. That would make sports — as well as other discretionary spending on arts and music — a potential place for cutbacks.
“Whether it’s a small part or a large part, it’s a hit on the [school] budget,” Pizzarelli said. "Athletics is discretionary spending, and some schools [may] have to make decisions on whether to cut sports or even teaching positions.”
“The scenarios are endless, but nothing is out of the question,” Combs said. “We want students to compete when it’s safe to return and we’re not putting anyone’s health in jeopardy.”