At Monday night’s Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting, several parents, community members and student-athletes passionately voiced their opinions about a topic that has been at the forefront of their minds for weeks: high-risk interscholastic sports.
On January 25, Sag Harbor Superintendent of Schools Jeff Nichols recommended against allowing the district’s varsity boys and girls basketball teams to conduct seasons because of the risk of speading COVID-19, despite the fact that a month after low-risk sports like swimming and track were allowed to start, the Suffolk County Department of Health and County Executive Steve Bellone had given clearance to let high risk sports begin.
Although most districts in the county have begun high risk sports seasons, 16 teams were forced to quarantine on the first day of the season — 14 basketball teams and two wrestling programs.
Mr. Nichols’s decision was a controversial one, mostly because Pierson became the only high school in Suffolk County that declined to let its student-athletes engage in the high risk sports.
In the weeks since Mr. Nichols’s decision, students at Pierson organized, led by senior three-sport athlete and varsity basketball player Hudson Brindle, who circulated a petition on Change.org asking for permission to play that amassed more than 700 signatures. Hudson made his case at the board meeting on Monday night, and was supported by several other student-athletes and parents who spoke about the various detrimental effects they feel the cancellation of their seasons will have.
Mr. Nichols patiently listened to their concerns, and commended the students for speaking up for themselves and making their voices heard. But, ultimately, he held firm on his original stance, saying he believed he had a duty to protect not only the students and staff in the district’s three buildings, but the community at large, against a virus that is still actively spreading, and has even increased its potency due to several more transmissible variants that have emerged.
Mr. Nichols said he did not wish to offend the county department of health or the Suffolk County Superintendents Association, but pointed out that in giving the green light to high-risk sports like basketball, they were “doing the very thing that the CDC has cautioned against.” He cited a position paper published on the CDC website on January 26 that recommended postponing high-contact sports where masking and physically distancing aren’t possible during periods of moderate to high community COVID spread.
Mr. Nichols and the board listened as the parents and student-athletes implored him to reconsider his position. Hudson questioned why Sag Harbor was the only district out of more than 50 in the county to prohibit high-risk sports, and pointed out that the larger Sag Harbor community seemed to be on the side of letting them play, evidenced by the strong response to the petition.
Many parents pointed out that the mental and emotional fallout for students prohibited from playing their chosen sports has to be taken into consideration, as well, when assessing the risks. Junior Madison Stuckart pointed out that she has been playing on a travel field hockey team for several weeks, in both indoor and outdoor venues, and said the safety measures they have in place have worked, leading her to believe that the same could hold true for basketball.
Mr. Nichols remained firm, however, citing his main reason for his decision: that the safeguards that have made in-person learning safe — mask-wearing, social distancing, and frequent hand washing — are thrown out the window when it comes to basketball competition.
“I know this is very, very hard, and I know we’re the one district on Long Island that has taken this stance, but it continues to remain counterintuitive, in light of mutant strains [of the virus] and recent research from the CDC, to basically say, we don’t really think we need to follow these guidelines anymore because we want to move forward with this,” he said.
Board member Yorgos Tsibridis asked about the possibility of letting high risk athletes go to remote learning during their seasons, which is being done in Manhasset and Great Neck in Nassau County, but Mr. Nichols shared why he did not think that was a good idea.
“Essentially, the district would be saying, ‘We know that you’re choosing to do something that places you in greater danger and endangers the community health, but as a school district, we’re willing to let you do that,’” he said. “I think, philosophically, that’s not something a district should be doing, knowingly placing our students in harm’s way.”
Another board member, Alex Kriegsman, in expressing support for Mr. Nichols’s position, pointed out that while Pierson was the only team on Long Island opting out of basketball because of COVID concerns, there were several other districts upstate, particularly in the Albany area, that have made the same choice, even with lower community transmission rates.
The morning after the meeting, Pierson Athletic Director Eric Bramoff said that he had made the choice to officially cancel the varsity boys and girls basketball seasons, even as a group of student-athletes organized a morning “walk-out” in a final protest attempt. Initially, Mr. Bramoff had kept the schedules intact and had planned on forfeiting game by game, as necessary, with the hope that there might be a change of heart from Mr. Nichols and the board. But he said on Tuesday morning that it became clear that wouldn’t happen, and added that canceling the season will allow Pierson’s opponents to reschedule games against someone else, rather than losing out on the chance to play a game in an already abbreviated season. Mr. Bramoff said he is now focusing on trying to make sure student-athletes participating in fall sports can be ready to go for the scheduled start date of March 1.
“I know some of the students are emotional about the decision that was made, but we need to use this as a learning experience,” he said. “You don’t always get the outcome that you want. What I’m looking for from the student-athletes now is, let’s do everything we can so we can start [with fall sports] on March 1 and hit the ground running. I’m imploring them to continue to make good decisions and stay as safe as they can.”
While low and moderate risk sports like field hockey, soccer, cross country, and girls tennis are set to proceed, the status of high-risk fall sports like football and girls volleyball are still unclear. Pierson has several student-athletes (including Hudson) who participate in football, which was a shared sports program with Southampton last season but will join with East Hampton — its traditional partner over the years — again this season. Girls volleyball is also categorized as high risk because it is played indoors.
“There’s a lot of science that lends itself to the idea that being outside is much better, so I’m really hoping we can make a strong case for football to happen,” Mr. Bramoff said. And while volleyball carries the risk of being indoors, it does have a format that makes it more amenable to safety measures than basketball does.
Mr. Bramoff said he recognized how hard it is on student-athletes, particularly as they will watch the rest of their peers across the county start playing in games this week, but he said he admired their tenacity in trying to fight for a chance to play.
“I want to commend the student athletes who chose to speak at the board meeting,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. They’re very emotionally invested, as am I. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but we have to move on.”