ALBANY — New York's education regulators are recommending schools cancel high-risk sporting events in areas where there is high transmission of COVID unless the participants are all fully vaccinated.
The state Education Department on Thursday released a set of school reopening guidelines for the academic year, which is slated to begin next month.
Among them were recommendations to schools related to sports and other extracurricular activities. For those sports and activities considered high risk, the state department is recommending cancellation in places where the coronavirus is spreading quickly — unless everyone participating has had their vaccination shots.
Among fall sports, the state Department of Health considers football, volleyball and competitive cheer/dance to be "higher risk." At last check Thursday, the CDC reported at least 25 counties in New York had "high" rates of COVID transmission over the last seven days, including Monroe County and most of the Hudson Valley.
"High-risk sports and extracurricular activities should be virtual or canceled in areas of high community transmission unless all participants are fully vaccinated," the guidelines reads.
Overall population vaccination percentages by county
(At least one dose)
- Monroe -
- Orange - %
- Putnam - %
- Rockland - %
- Sullivan - %
- Ulster - %
- Westchester - 69%
The Education Department's guidelines are not mandates, but rather recommendations school districts can choose whether to follow. Fall sports are scheduled to begin Aug.
For sports and other extracurricular activities with an elevated risk of spreading COVID — such as chorus and band — the state department recommends regular virus testing in line with CDC guidance.
"It's not surprising and it's unfortunate because of what the kids missed last year, and here we are again doing the same thing and there can be a lot of opportunities missed once again," Port Jervis football coach Damien Striharsky said. "To be honest, for what? We pushed it off (moving the season to the spring).
"To me, I don't see if that helped or hurt, but I think it was indifferent. For this to happen again, I feel bad for the kids, for the student athletes."
A spokesman for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which oversees scholastic sports in the state, said the association had just received the guidance late Tuesday afternoon and was "unpacking it as we speak."
So were high school sports sanctioning body officials, school district superintendents and athletic directors around the state.
Section I: Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, Westchester Counties
Section I officials and coaches appeared blindsided by the Education Department’s recommendation.
"We’re heading right back to where we were (with sports last fall), I’m afraid," Somers athletic director Roman Catalino said. "When I hear 'high risk' I think of what we did last year."
Last school year, football, volleyball and girls swimming were moved from fall to spring with seasons abbreviated.
Catalino said his school district knows some of its athletes have been vaccinated but has "no true idea" of the number. He anticipates speaking to Section I executive director Todd Santabarbara and other area athletic directors Friday.
Arlington volleyball coach Maria Greenwood said the guidance may create more confusion and more questions.
"We’re all planning tournaments. This would definitely affect tournaments," she said.
Greenwood also pointed to the spring’s "Fall II" season, where football and volleyball were played, but with safety measures in place.
"We proved we could do it. Play with the masks on," Greenwood said. “If this is what we have to do to get the season going again, it’s a small price."
Fall sports practices that count toward the playing eligibility for student-athletes won’t begin until August But Spring Valley football coach Andrew Delva noted his squad, like many in Section I, has held captains’ practices this summer and, with no current mask mandate, players have been working out together without the masks they were required to wear during their delayed season last spring.
"Kids have been doing stuff all summer," he said.
"This is definitely a concern now. To me, we're an outdoor sport. I think we are a little more controlled (with transmission) compared to indoor sports,” he said.
Delva also questioned the state's timing, remarking, “It’s kind of tough to do one week away from the start (of practices)."
Section V: Rochester region
Section V executive director Kathy Hoyt said school districts will probably wait and watch for more guidance from the state education department, the state health department and their local health departments before deciding who will or will not play.
There was no guidance document presented during the NYSPHSAA summer meeting held during the final week of July, Hoyt said.
"There was very little discussion then, but a lot has happened since then, (COVID) infection rates have gone up," Hoyt added.
"It's so disheartening and frustrating, but you can't change it. All we can do is plan for it and attack it. We will continue to try and provide (sports seasons)."
Hoyt said NYSPHSAA administrative leaders are expected to meet with athletic directors in Section V on Aug.
"At this point, people have a good idea of what's going on, or how to deal with it," Hoyt said. "We did it last year."
Section IX: Orange, Sullivan and Ulster Counties
Bill Bianco, coach of the football team at Newburgh Free Academy, said the team lost no player to COVID last spring.
"I'll just say this: obviously in this day and age and this time there are risks," Bianco said. "I don't think anybody would argue that, but they're also risks for these kids not being involved in stuff, too, especially in our (minority) community.
"Our program and the organization it gives some of these kids, the sense of being part of something that it gives them, when we don't have it our kids struggle. It provides structure and without it there's effects of that too."
Bianco also said he understands "the sensitivity to the issue, but at the same time at this point, in my opinion, is these kids need this."
"Maybe I have different issues than another school would potentially have," Bianco said. "I don't think I'm going on a limb saying that, but once again at this stage of the game, we proved we could do it pretty well in the spring last year, which was not too long ago.
"I think there's risk with everything and I think ultimately we have got to move on."
Includes reporting by The Journal News staff writers Eugene Rapay and Nancy Haggerty, The Times Herald-Record staff writer Ken McMillan, Poughkeepsie Journal staff writer A.J. Martelli and Democrat and Chronicle staff writer James Johnson.
Jon Campbell is the New York State Team editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.
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