Monday marked the official start of the 2021 fall high school athletics season, which comes with optimism and excitement from all parties involved — the athletes, coaches, parents and school officials — who all had to endure shortened seasons and restrictions last school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The New York State Education Department did issue recommendations for high-risk sports as part of its health and safety guidelines for re-opening schools in September. Those guidelines said “high-risk sports and extracurricular activities should be virtual or canceled in areas of high community transmission unless all participants are vaccinated.”
High-risk sports in the fall include competitive cheerleading, football and volleyball, and both Nassau and Suffolk counties are considered high-risk areas at the moment, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But county officials are prepared to go into the fall season, which is expected to go back to normal, pre-pandemic schedules, full steam ahead.
“COVID concerns and questions are rising daily,” Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs said in a statement on August 19. “NYSED and the SCDOH have released statements that are recommendations at this time. We continue to follow their guidelines and will adjust our plans if necessary.
“Meetings with all fall Chair-People enables us to evaluate options and provide us with the best opportunities for a successful and complete season,” he continued. “I am also working with the Superintendents and the Section XI Executive Board as well to prepare for potential possibilities.”
Local school officials said that as long as the current situation remains, athletes, coaches and parents should expect a normal, or close-to-normal, fall season. All districts on the South Fork are requiring students, or anyone who comes inside the building for that matter, to wear masks indoors, and that includes athletes. Volleyball players and coaches, and those schools that have gymnastics, will continue to be required to wear masks and social distance when they can.
But those appear to be the only holdover restrictions from last school year.
All outdoor athletes, such as football, soccer and tennis platers are not required to wear masks, and schools are allowing spectators, both home and away, indoors and outdoors, they’re just asking to socially distance as much as they can.
“Right now, anything outside of school, there really are no restrictions,” Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said. “When kids come in to use the locker rooms — which we are issuing lockers again, something we couldn’t do last year — we are asking them mask up when they come inside to do that. Spectators and players for volleyball inside will have to wear masks and be spaced out.
“We are being safety conscious, but, for the most part, there are no restrictions,” he added. “And the county is leaving it up to the schools to manage their programs, which is a good thing. Last year, we were all trying to figure how to go about all of this and I think we’re picking up where we left off in the spring with minimal restrictions.”
Pierson Athletic Director Eric Bramoff said he can feel the excitement from all parties involved. Everyone has been champing at the bit to get back to sports, particularly in Sag Harbor, where sports were hit hard last year — specifically winter indoor sports such as basketball, which were canceled altogether.
“Whenever it comes to the COVID policies enforced from a district standpoint, I rely heavily on my superintendent and board of education, but we’re starting our year off with not much out of the ordinary,” Bramoff said. “We are requiring indoor practices such as volleyball to still use masks and practice social distancing when possible, but I stay in constant contact with everyone and we’re able to adapt to what we do from an athletic standpoint with the latest information that we have. We certainly can become more restrictive as needed, but I think our board of education and superintendent have had a pretty mindful tact when it comes to regulations regarding COVID.”
School officials are optimistic that the upcoming season will be close to normal as possible.
“It’s as normal as can be,” East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo said. “I’m exited about it. We have full schedules, full rosters. I hope we stay this way.”
“It’s very weird because I feel like we just ended the last season, and we did,” Westhampton Beach Athletic Director Kathy Masterson said. “But this is for the kids, and that’s what I care most about, seeing what they love to do. It’s going to be great.”