Pierson, Other Local Districts Share Protocols For Indoor Sports Spectators

Pierson fans fill the stands during Spirit Night 2019. DREW BUDD

On November 18, Sag Harbor Superintendent of Schools Jeff Nichols sent a letter to parents informing them of the district’s updated spectator protocols for the 2021-22 winter sports season. The protocols represent an incremental return to normal.

Pierson was the only school in Suffolk County to officially cancel its winter sports season last year, due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, a move that led to protests from students and disappointed many parents. This year, the teams will compete, but in an effort to help mitigate the spread of COVID, Nichols announced that, for games contested in the Pierson High School gymnasium, capacity will be capped at 250 spectators, and for games played in both the Pierson Middle School gymnasium and Sage Hall at the Sag Harbor Learning Center, there will be only one spectator allowed per team member. Masks will be required for spectators at all indoor sporting events at every school this year, because it is part of a state-wide mandate.

“Indoor sporting events present increased COVID-19 risks for students and spectators,” the letter read. “The New York State Department of Health recommends that ‘students and adults follow the same school day policies and procedures during athletic and extracurricular activities.’”

The letter went on to say that “two important prevention strategies utilized during the school day are physical distancing and mask wearing. Both strategies are incorporated into the school district’s indoor winter sports spectator and safety protocols.”

The letter ended by stating that the school district would “continue to monitor local COVID-19 conditions and will adjust our safety protocols as needed.”

Last week, Nichols spoke about the choices he and the district faced in trying to determine the spectator protocols, and why they settled on the current configuration.

“The choices were to allow no restrictions aside from mask wearing, which I didn’t think was responsible,” he said. “Or we could have required proof of vaccination, but if we went that route, we would have had to deal with making some related accommodations in terms of exemptions, and we could have opened ourselves up to potential legal issues.”

Some schools are limiting capacity while others aren’t. All schools will require spectators to wear masks. CAILIN RILEY

Nichols pointed out that requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test is consistent with what the school district requires of its employees, but said they settled on their policy because they felt that the combination of masking and reduced capacity allowing for social distancing was the best solution for the time being.

“We will monitor local conditions, and if they improve, we can adjust the protocols, or if conditions deteriorate, we can become more restrictive,” Nichols added.

As far as other local school districts in the area and across Suffolk County, policies varied. In a survey sent out to Suffolk County districts asking what spectator policies they’d settled on, 41 of the county’s 59 districts that host at least one interscholastic sport during the winter season responded, and the responses were a mixed bag. Of those 41 schools, just 13 were limiting capacity at home games, while 17 specified that they would create separate home and away sections, although in many schools that’s a policy that pre-dates COVID.

Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said that Southampton would be limiting capacity to one-third of the usual capacity for its respective gyms at the high school and middle school. Hampton Bays Athletic Director John Foster said on Friday that school officials in his district were “still talking about it.”

Westhampton Beach Athletic Director Kathy Masterson said that her district’s policy was also still “a work in progress.”

“We are waiting to see what type of crowds we get and will continue to re-evaluate on a day-to-day basis,” she said on Sunday.

East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo said the district will not restrict capacity for regular season basketball games and wrestling dual meets, but said for its annual Sprig Gardner wrestling tournament — set for December 4 — that includes several schools and thus more fans, the school will enforce a limit of two spectators per athlete.

Most of the respondents to the survey did not put in any restrictions aside from the state-required mask mandate and a promise to “encourage” social distancing.

Practice for JV and varsity sports started on November 15, and the first contests were set for November 22.