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Split decision: HS sports in Nassau postponed; plan is to try to play in Suffolk

Nassau school superintendents voted to postpone high school sports until 2021 on Wednesday, while Suffolk high school athletics will continue to practice and play low-risk sports beginning on Sept. 21. Newsday's Steve Langford has the story.    Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

High school sports in Nassau County has been postponed until 2021, but the plan is to still try to play in Suffolk this fall.

Nassau’s council of school superintendents voted 7-0 to postpone high school sports until 2021 at an emergency meeting held Wednesday morning. The intention is to play all three sports seasons between January and June when, hopefully, the danger of COVID-19 transmission has decreased, there is a treatment or a vaccine is found.

“This decision comes from an abundance of caution and health and safety for our students,” said Hank Grishman, Jericho’s superintendent of schools. “No matter what procedures are put in place, it’s just not safe to return to sports – there’s still too many unknowns with the virus. In my 50-year career in education nothing holds a candle to this. It’s all a bad dream.”

Section XI, the governing body for Suffolk high school athletics, held an executive board meeting Wednesday and voted to continue the statewide plan to have lower-risk sports begin practice and play on Sept. 21. Section XI officials – including representation of superintendents – voted 12-0 to go forward unless there is new information to consider, according to section executive director Tom Combs.

The Catholic high schools on Long Island have held meetings each week during the summer and are exploring all options, according to NSCHSAA boys president Ralph Dalton. The Diocese of Rockville Centre principals board will ultimately decide what the schools will do.

The coronavirus pandemic halted high school sports across New York in the second week of March and ultimately wiped out the entire 2020 spring sports season. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday issued guidance that would permit lower-risk fall sports – which he named as soccer, tennis, cross country, field hockey and swimming – to begin on Sept. 21. The guidance also said that higher-risk fall sports – football and volleyball – may begin practicing on Sept. 21 as well, but cannot play games until a later date or Dec. 31.

A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment on the local decisions.

“These are all value judgments that we are making and the balance of the judgment is always the same: Increase the activity to the rate of normalcy as quick as possible,” Cuomo said Wednesday, but “on the other side of the scale, don’t let the infection rate get above 1% and keep the virus at a manageable level. That has always been the balance.”

State Budget Director Robert Mujica said the state is evaluating testing results to help guide schools trying to determine their sports schedules.

“Once we feel comfortable that you can go to higher-risk sports – with more contact, more touching, more difficulty in mitigation – we have updated the guidelines … and will continue to do that,” Mujica said.

The state’s Council of School Superintendents made a written appeal to Cuomo on Wednesday to delay school athletics until Jan. 1. It pointed out some of the ambiguity of state guidelines – like requiring 12 feet between students in gym class but permitting soccer – and speaks to the efforts just to bring back classroom learning. It reads, in part, “our leaders want a successful reopening and are expressing a strong desire to defer all other activities that could endanger the health and safety of students and delay their start in the classroom. Students need to be back in school, with their friends and teachers as soon as possible. School leaders need to be focused on this effort and not have their attention diverted to extracurricular activities as this moment.”

The postponement by Nassau's sports officials is the first among the 11 sections across New York.

"Just like I have been fighting to reopen businesses safely, I will fight to get our student-athletes safely back on the playing fields and courts,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement. “I will continue to communicate with the school superintendents who made the decision to help find ways a safe return to sports can be made.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone did not respond to a request for comment.

Grishman said Tuesday this was one of three paths the superintendents could go down. The other choices were to postpone a decision and wait to see how students returning to classrooms would affect infection numbers, or to go ahead with the governor’s guidance.

“The timing of the governor’s decision was too late and it put the superintendents and athletic community in immediate conflict,” said Ed Ramirez, the director of athletics for Baldwin schools. “The athletic community wants sports to start and believes kids should have that experience. But to ask school administrators to put that together in such a short period of time, with so many ‘ifs’ still out there, is impossible."

“It’s the prudent thing to do – wait until January,” said Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director for Section VIII, which governs high school athletics in Nassau. “We know this will be a very unpopular decision, but it is the only one we can make at this time. We’re unanimous in our feeling that we’re just not ready. It’s just not time to allow kids to play sports. And my first and foremost concern is the safety of our student-athletes.”

“We are still learning about this virus and its effects, short- and long-term,” Pizzarelli added. “The science behind it continues to uncover scary truths, especially the potential for heart ailments and long-term heart damage for kids.”

Section XI, on the other hand, “has decided to keep going forward with a Sept. 21 start and assess new information as it becomes available,” Combs said. “Section VIII had to do what it felt was right for Section VIII. We know there are parents and students [in Suffolk] with varying opinions, but at this time we felt we should stay the course.”

“I give Nassau County [officials] and its administrators a lot of credit for being the first section to postpone,” Dalton said. “They are unified and were able to make a tough decision and made it for all the right reasons.”

The Section VIII plan calls for compact seasons of approximately nine weeks, beginning with winter sports in January. Fall sports would be the second season and spring sports would follow. Tennis would be played in the spring.

In a New York State Public High School Athletic Association meeting of section directors on Tuesday, the topic of the January-to-June option was discussed and a number of section leaders were considering it, according to several participants. Sections I, III, IV and IX were said to be considering it, in addition to the Long Island sections.

“Let’s have things calm down and we’ll run condensed seasons from January to June,” Grishman said. “We’ll have more information and a better idea how to keep kids safe.”

- With Scott Eidler and Michael Gormley

Nassau plans to condense the three high school sports seasons -- fall, winter and spring -- into a six-month schedule without overlapping any sports.

January-February: Winter sports

Girls and boys basketball

Boys swimming/diving

Girls and boys indoor track

Girls and boys fencing

Girls and boys bowling

Cheerleading

Gymnastics

Wrestling

March-April: Fall sports

Football

Girls and boys soccer

Field hockey

Girls and boys cross country

Girls and boys volleyball

Girls swimming/diving

May-June: Spring sports

Baseball

Softball

Girls and boys tennis

Girls and boys badminton

Girls and boys golf

Girls and boys lacrosse

Girls and boys track

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