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NYSPHSAA finalizes high-risk sports protocols that factor into potential go-ahead

Mike Dougherty
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Many of the local officials tasked with deciding the immediate future of high-risk sports know little about the sports landscape.  

The detailed sport-by-sport protocols they need to consider in order to make a decision later this week were finalized and released Monday evening by the NYSPHSAA in a 71-page document.

"It’s an important piece of planning for athletic directors and school administrators," Section 1 executive director Todd Santabarbara said.

For county health commissioners and county executives, too.

The document lists considerations for athletes, coaches, officials and parents. It does not include revised start and ending dates, which are up to each section. 

Tappan Zee defeats Albertus 54-41 in boys varsity basketball action at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg on Tuesday, February 4, 2020.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Department of Health on Friday updated the interim guidance for sports and recreation, leaving the decision to allow high-risk sports like basketball, hockey and wrestling to open their seasons to local health officials.

The directive allows for a Feb. 1 start.

It also impacts football and boys lacrosse in upcoming seasons. There are instructions to monitor for the highly transmissible variants of COVID-19, factor in local transmission or positivity rates, and monitor and enforce compliance.

The update applies to interscholastic and club athletics.

Monroe-Woodbury girls basketball players celebrate their victory over Valley Central in the Section 9 Class AA championship on March 7, 2020

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According to DOH guidelines, participants must continue to wear acceptable face coverings for COVID-19. These include cloth and disposable masks that cover the mouth and nose.

Capacity limits are 50% of maximum occupancy for an indoor space. The number includes athletes, coaches and staff. The state allows two spectators per athlete, but it’s unclear whether local officials will allow them in the gym.

There are currently no fans on site for most NBA and NCAA contests.

Each site needs to have an entry checkpoint with approved physical barriers to separate employees and entrants. A staff member needs to be present to make sure all individuals in attendance maintain at least six feet of distance.

Most individual school districts competed in the fall and have a plan in place for handling competitions. 

County health commissioners from Dutchess, Ulster, Sullivan and Orange were scheduled to meet on Monday with Section 9 executive director Greg Ransom.  

"If they all give us approval, we're ready to roll,” he said. "We've been planning for all this since last March. Every time something changes, we push it back or alter the plans, but the ideas have been in place for months. It will also be up to the individual school districts if they want to participate or not.” 

Ketcham's Matt Masch vs Arlington's John Frustace during Wednesday's match on January 8, 2020.

All protocols from the NYSPHSAA are best practices and not mandated.

The Section 1 Executive Committee met on Monday to discuss the next step. Athletic directors will convene via Zoom on Tuesday.

"We have a number of ideas that we have been discussing with athletic directors," Santabarbara said on Friday when the news broke. "If we can get the green light for Feb. 1, I don’t see why we wouldn’t move forward with the winter season. Sections have the autonomy to establish their own end dates, so if all the stars align and we get he go-ahead, it's then a matter of determining how long the seasons run." 

Yonkers superintendent of schools Edwin Quezada on Monday indicated his district may struggle to get high-risk winter sports to a Feb. 1 starting line if Westchester County officials give permission.

"For us to clear 300 athletes by Feb. 1, who has the capacity to do that?" he said. "Who is going to give a physical to all those students and review their academic records to see if they are eligible to play? Does the state consider what we are dealing with at this time?"

Yonkers is the fourth-largest city in the state and opted not to participate in low- and moderate risk sports in the fall.

Rye's Declan Lavelle (9) scores a goal during their 3-1 win over Pelham in the D2 ice hockey semifinal at Playland Park in Rye on Thursday, February 27, 2020.

The New York State Department of Education has already waived physical examinations normally required for school attendance and sports participation as long as students have one from the 2018-2019 or 2019-2020 school years and provide a current health history signed by a parent or guardian within 30 days of the start of the season.

It's a certainty that most schools in Section 1 will have to scramble. 

According to Westchester County Executive George Latimer, there will likely be a joint announcement on Friday about the future of high-risk sports. He met with a group of superintendents Monday and expects to consult with peers in Rockland, Dutchess and Putnam during the week. 

Much of the guidance follows the framework established by the NFHS and is directed at NYSPHSAA member schools, but can be adopted by club programs.

Here are some of the highlights:

Referee Donna Sporfford during a Section 1 Class A girls basketball quarterfinal at Walter Panas Feb. 23, 2017.

NYSPHSAA high-risk protocols

  • All sports should limit participants and maintain spacing during pregame meetings with the officials and provide socially-distanced bench areas. Contact needs to be limited while substituting players. All high-fives and fist-bumps should be eliminated.  
  • Officials may use electronic whistles.
  • Coaches must share state, local and district guidelines in a clear manner with students and parents. The use of cohorts are encouraged in practice to help limit potential exposure. Accurate records of attendance must be kept to aid with contact tracing.
  • Athletes should come to games in uniform and workouts in appropriate clothing. They are encouraged to bring their own water bottles and towels. Locker rooms can be utilized, but only where social distancing is possible.  
  • In basketball, the home school is encouraged to sanitize the ball during timeouts and in between quarters. Long sleeves are permissible.
  • In hockey, there’s an emphasis on limiting personnel and players on benches and in penalty boxes. Plastic shields need to be integrated or worn inside the face mask and must be clear. Hands need to be sanitized each time mouth guards are removed. Larger dressing areas are encouraged.
  • In wrestling, more dual meets and fewer tournaments are prescribed. Weigh-ins should no longer include both teams. Ankle bands must be disinfected after each match. Further guidance is to be expected no later than Sunday.
  • In football, on-field personnel should be limited and team boxes should be extended to the 10-yard lines to allow social distancing. The ball needs to be sanitized throughout each game according to manufacturer recommendations. Huddles during timeouts should move away from the sideline. Hands need to be sanitized each time mouth guards are removed. A single timeout may be extended to two minutes to allow for a mask break.
  • In volleyball, four balls are suggested for match use. Long sleeves and long pants or single-color underlayers are permissible. Hands should be sanitized between sets.

Gary Stern and Stephen Haynes contributed reporting for this article.

Mike Dougherty covers boys soccer, boys lacrosse, girls basketball and golf for The Journal News/lohud.com. He can be reached at mdougher@lohud.com, or on Twitter @hoopsmbd, @lohudlacrosse, @lohudhoopsmbd and @lohudgolf.