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Uniondale, Lawrence high schools opt out of winter sports seasons because of COVID-19 concerns

Jo Jo Wright and Uniondale won't get to

Jo Jo Wright and Uniondale won't get to play basketball this winter, it was announced Wednesday. Credit: James Escher

Uniondale and Lawrence High Schools are canceling the winter sports seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director of Section VIII, the governing body of Nassau County high school sports.

Lawrence also is canceling plans to try to play the 2020 fall season in 2021, but still hopes to play spring sports, according to Christian Paulino, the school's first-year athletic director.

"We were notified that those schools have decided to opt out of the winter season," Pizzarelli said. "I feel bad for the kids and they’re going to miss an important part of the high school experience. But I also understand that this COVID pandemic is dangerous and could have life-lasting effects on young people. My deep concern is that [the cancellations] could turn into a trend within the county. I hope this doesn’t surface at any more of our member schools."

Tom Combs, the executive director of Section XI, Suffolk's governing body, said no schools in the county have made a decision on the winter sports season, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 4.

The Board of Education for the Uniondale Union Free School District voted late Tuesday night to cancel the winter sports programs.

A letter from the district's athletic director Jonathan Jefferson, which was obtained by Newsday, read, in part: "Uniondale was devastated by COVID-19 last spring, and the current rate of infection in the community is frightening. Only 10% of our students are currently in-person. We are hopeful that the vaccines will get us through this pandemic, and we can rejoin interscholastic athletics next spring."

Jefferson told Newsday Wednesday morning, "We’re not participating in the winter sports season between now and March 1. What will happen with the following two seasons has not been addressed and is dependent on the pandemic . . . We want to see our kids alive and whole in the spring. We don’t want chronic heart conditions because they picked up COVID. Do we want to permanently damage a teen for the rest of their life over one year of sports? That’s something you can’t rebound from. We can rebound from missed games but not chronic illness and death."

Uniondale boys basketball coach Tom Diana said he hasn't talked to the team as a group yet but plans to hold a team Zoom.

"We’ve talked to them all individually about how sometimes things happen out of your control and you have to be resilient and mentally tough," Diana said. "One of the great things about athletics is I think it gives you a good chance to learn about adversity and overcome it."

Zarron Duncan, who was returning for his senior season on the Knights, reacted to the news. "It’s a disappointment because everybody wants to play and everybody’s getting better," he said. "I was looking forward to playing this academic season, but at the same time, I understand the decision because they are trying to keep the students safe and stop the spread."

Paulino said Lawrence is operating under a hybrid model with students in school on alternating weeks.

"It’s unfortunate that we have to go this route, but the COVID numbers are rising and I know it’s an unpopular decision but it’s ultimately the best decision for the health and safety of our kids," Paulino said. "This is a definitive decision for our winter and fall sports programs. I am hopeful that we can have spring sports."

Paulino said he delivered the news to Lawrence coaches himself on Wednesday.

"Initially they were upset," he said. "I wanted them to hear from me and not through the grapevine . . . I know it’s not the news that kids and parents want to hear. We all want some sense of normalcy back and sports does that for us. The one thing that we don’t want is a tragedy."

Said Pizzarelli: "When you take away the sports element, a lot of kids will let it affect their academics. They need both."

With Owen O'Brien

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