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Doctor cautions about injuries in compact high school seasons

LI doctors and athletic directors discuss safety protocols

LI doctors and athletic directors discuss safety protocols and how they affect athletes' mental health, as high-risk sports resume. Sign up for COVID-19 text alerts at newsday.com/text.

Panelists include: Jennifer Keane, Director of Physical Education, Health and Athletics, Wantagh High School; Dr. Robert J. Zayas, NYSPHSAA Executive Director; Dr. Marcel Green, Private Practice: Mount Sinai Health System, Catholic Health Services of Long Island, The Children’s Village and Geisinger Health System; Dr. James M. Paci, Director of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine for Suffolk County, The Orlin & Cohen Orthopedic Group at Northwell Health; and Deb Ferry, Director of Athletics, Half Hollow Hills District.

Those charged with running high school sports in New York State and on Long Island have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to play every sport in all three seasons even as the coronavirus pandemic continues. These measures, however, come with risks aside from COVID-19.

Section VIII and Section XI, which govern public school sports in Nassau and Suffolk counties respectively, compressed each season and stacked them side-by-side so all 2020-21 sports will be played in the first six months of 2021. And that much practice and play in such a short time could make physical injuries a concern.

Dr. James M. Paci, Director of Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine for Suffolk County for the Orlin and Cohen Orthopedic Group, pointed to shorter preseasons, the quest to fit in as many games as possible and the way removing postseasons also removes days off for many and said "we have to treat this as something different because it is — otherwise we're really going to see a big explosion in injury rates."

Paci was on the panel for Wednesday’s Newsday Live roundtable "High-Risk School Sports & COVID-19: Tackling the Challenges of Returning to Play," hosted by associate editor Joye Brown and high school sports editor Gregg Sarra. Other panelists were New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Zayas, Wantagh AD Jennifer Keane, Half Hollow Hills district AD Deb Ferry and Dr. Marcel Green, a psychiatrist with Mount Sinai Health Systems.

Paci suggested that everything cannot be full bore, that "conditioning days" be interspersed with "teaching days" and said "if you have a heavy game load, the next day you're going to want to back down on your practices, otherwise we're going to see a huge jump in injuries."

Several questions were raised by viewers about spectators at sporting events. Section XI doesn’t permit them. Section VIII does, but leaves it to the discretion of individual school districts. Keane said that Wantagh is not permitting fans, but is able to live stream all home sporting events. She added that she shares a link to the Wantagh stream with the opposing schools and many do that in return when the Warriors are on the road. "We're really working together to try and make the best of the situation," she said. "It’s the safest possible situation for those kids and coaches that are that are on the courts and on the mats."

Section XI is among seven of the 11 state section that bar spectators and the decision has been met with some criticism on social media, however Zayas said it’s the schools that raise the concerns.

"These are school campuses — these are not sports venues — and there’s a misconception: These are educational learning centers," Zayas said. "These are places where students come every single day and on many school campuses throughout our state, visitors are not permitted. Just being able to host an opposing team is an accomplishment."

Ferry, who oversees athletic administration and COVID-19 protocols at both Half Hollow Hills East and Half Hollow Hills West, preached that "flexibility in everything is key." She said that with no locker rooms or classrooms for teams, the school lobbies are used at halftime. And that with all the cancellations caused by team quarantines, schedule changes will be common "and it’s going to be difficult to reschedule all those games."

With a large number of game officials opting out for the winter season, she said many schools are resorting to scheduling scrimmages in the event they cannot find officials for rescheduled games.

On the topic of mental health, Green said that student-athletes could be experiencing higher levels of anxiety due to uncertainty and changes in their regimes. He cautioned that depression could be seen in "withdrawal from family, withdrawal from social circles, lack of motivation . . . [and] engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms [like] spending a lot of time on video games [or] a lot of time with social media."

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