Sag Harbor School Superintendent Urges Board Not To Allow Students to Play High-Risk Sports

Pierson'sHabtamu Coulder charges a defender, knocking him over as the Whalers fought the Southold First Settlers for the Suffolk County Class C Basketball Championship at East Hampton High School on Friday night, 2/14/20

At Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, Sag Harbor Schools Superintendent Jeff Nichols made a recommendation on an issue that has been one of hottest topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic and schools — and it was a decision that will likely put Pierson High School in a minority position.

Last week, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo made a long-anticipated move regarding the status of “high-risk” interscholastic sports, saying he’d leave the decision of whether or not to let those teams play up to individual county boards of health. Just a few days later, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gave the green light, allowing basketball, wrestling, and cheerleading teams to start practice on Monday, February 1, nearly a month after the “low to moderate risk” winter sports — track and field, swimming and diving, and bowling — started their seasons.

But individual schools still have discretion when it comes to letting their students engage in those sports, and on Monday night, Mr. Nichols recommended against allowing Pierson’s middle school, junior varsity, and varsity basketball teams back on the hardwood.

His recommendation was met with seemingly unanimous approval from the members of the board, most of whom lamented having to make what they agreed was a difficult choice. Board member Sandi Kruel, a particularly outspoken advocate for interscholastic sports, called it one of the toughest stances she’s had to take, adding it was even more painful for her than the decision around opening schools in the fall.

What will make the decision particularly tough to swallow for the student-athletes who participate in those sports — most notably juniors and seniors, who are at or close to the end of their playing careers — is that Pierson is likely to be an outlier when it comes to this choice. Westhampton Beach and East Hampton will run JV and varsity boys and girls basketball and wrestling, and Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said on Wednesday morning that his school will as well.

As of Tuesday, Pierson was the only school in Suffolk County not participating in high-risk winter sports, Sag Harbor Athletic Director Eric Bramoff confirmed on Wednesday morning.

“It’s a very emotional topic,” Mr. Bramoff said. “Our community cherishes our sports programs. But this was a decision based on science and it’s been consistent with the way Superintendent Nichols has guided us throughout the pandemic.”

When discussing his recommendation, Mr. Nichols cited several reasons why he did not feel it was safe to conduct basketball seasons, or allow any students who wanted to wrestle to join the shared sports program hosted by East Hampton. Currently, several Pierson students are practicing and competing with the East Hampton boys and girls winter track teams and the East Hampton boys swim team, which started their seasons a month ago.

“I’m not trying to minimize the work everybody has put into this,” Mr. Nichols said. “But I feel as though there’s a bit of COVID fatigue going on. I don’t think the facts have changed in terms of where we’re at. If anything, the facts suggest we’re in a worse situation than we were a few months ago.”

On Monday night Sag Harbor Schools Superintendent Jeff Nichols recommended against allowing Pierson’s middle school, junior varsity, and varsity basketball teams back on the hardwood. EXPRESS FILE

Section XI, the governing body of high school sports in Suffolk County, has put together a detailed “return to play” plan, which outlines many safety measures, including temperature checks for players and coaches prior to games and practice, mask wearing while on the sidelines (although, notably, not during active play), minimization of equipment sharing, and the keeping of detailed logs by coaches to make contact tracing easier. There would also be weekly testing for athletes and coaches, but Mr. Nichols pointed out that the less reliable rapid or antigen tests would be used, and he cited statistics about their limited efficacy at identifying positive cases, especially for asymptomatic people.

Mr. Nichols pointed out that on December 1, when the decision was made to allow only low to moderate risk sports to start, the test positivity rate in the county was at 4.2 percent. Currently, that rate is now nearly twice as high. Citing that, he said it seemed “illogical” to decide to run the same sports that were considered too risky to start when the test positivity rate was much lower.

He made perhaps his most compelling argument for making the decision at the end of delivering his report.

“I have an obligation to look out for the well-being of our students and also our faculty and staff,” he said. “If we opt into high-risk sports, we’re increasing the likelihood that our teachers, subs, custodians and everyone else could be exposed to the virus. As superintendent, I’ve taken a pretty measured approach throughout, and have tried to reference science to justify recommendations. I see no reason to abandon that logic at this point.”

Mr. Bramoff spoke after Mr. Nichols, and tried to make a case that the school could conduct the basketball seasons safely, saying he felt the assignment of low, moderate and high levels of risk to certain sports seemed “arbitrary,” and not seemingly backed up by strict scientific metrics. He also echoed a sentiment that has been a familiar refrain from area athletic directors: just let us try.

“From a personal standpoint, I’d like to have the challenge of giving the juniors and seniors a chance to participate in something that’s such a critical component of their lives,” he said, adding he’d do everything in his power to protect everyone’s safety. “I’d be as diligent as possible and follow the 70-plus guidelines from Section XI.”

He also pointed out that surrounding districts would be giving their student-athletes the chance to play.

High School junior Madison Stuckart was watching the meeting, and left a comment in the chat function of the Zoom video session. She’s a field hockey player, and mentioned that her junior season will be crucial in her efforts to get recruited by colleges. Field hockey is classified as a moderate risk sport, and currently will be allowed to conduct a season when fall sports are set to start later in the school year. But her comment was a bit of insight into how the decisions affect student-athletes. By the following morning, a petition to let the basketball teams play had been started by Hudson Brindle, a member of the varsity boys basketball team.

It had nearly 250 signatures around noon on Tuesday.

Budget Considerations

Discussions around high-risk sports dominated much of the meeting, but School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi also gave another detailed presentation as part of the ongoing budget development process. After presenting at the last meeting about the state of the district’s reserve funds, Ms. Buscemi’s focus this week was on salary and employee benefits, which make up the largest part of the budget. Her main emphasis was on the fact that the budget will remain “very tight” next year, because the tax cap is very low, and the district is seeing what she said was the “lowest levy growth factor” in five years. Despite that, she did point out that there is contingency built in for the new hires, who were needed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the event that the district needs to extend their appointments beyond one year.

Revenue projections will be the next topic of discussion in the process.