A year after getting the OK to play, ‘high’ risk high school sports still pivoting amid COVID-19 pandemic

Johnstown's Braden Jones takes a shot between Broadalbin-Perth's Mariano DiCaterino and Matthew DeJong Dec. 17
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Johnstown's Braden Jones takes a shot between Broadalbin-Perth's Mariano DiCaterino and Matthew DeJong Dec. 17

High school sports, an endeavor normally steeped in routine, has been — like so many things — in a constant state of flux since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Little distills that better than by looking back at where things were a year ago and where they sit now.

Days of anxiously waiting to see if county-by-county COVID-19 positivity rates were low enough for sports to proceed are a thing of the past, and while the virus still has a major impact on athletics, school districts have pivoted to ensure the games go on — even if there are still disruptions along the way.

Saturday marked one year since “high” risk high school winter sports, such as basketball, got the OK from the New York state government — then under the leadership of now-former Gov. Andrew Cuomo — to play starting Feb. 1, 2021, pending approval from county health authorities.

Sports deemed as “high” risk by the state Department of Health’s guidelines hadn’t been played since the early days of pandemic-related shutdowns in New York in March 2020, which led to the postponement of the fall football and volleyball seasons, and a delay for winter sports.

In the days leading up to Feb. 1 last year, most counties across the Capital Region and Mohawk Valley put a similar benchmark into place: for high schools to be able to play these sports — which included basketball and wrestling during a shortened winter season — a county’s seven-day rolling average of positive coronavirus tests needed to be less than 4%.

A year later, with COVID-19 cases elevated around the region due to the highly contagious omicron variant, positivity rates have neared and at times exceeded 20% in recent weeks, but the days of county-wide sports shutdowns are seemingly a distant memory.

“If the numbers last year are where the numbers were at about a week, two weeks ago, there wouldn’t even be a consideration,” said Fonda-Fultonville athletic director Eric Wilson, who is also the school’s varsity boys’ basketball head coach. “It makes you feel good that at least we’re going in the right direction and taking the right steps. We’re learning, we’re realizing what’s working and not working. I keep telling the kids and telling myself, ‘just take it day-by-day,’ and if we keep making those steps in the right direction, hopefully we’ll get back to ‘the old normal,’ not what’s considered ‘the new normal.’ ” 

County officials from around the region said that there were no prospects of local governments imposing restrictions on high school athletics moving forward.

Those restrictions came at a time when the state was still operating under New York’s disaster emergency declaration for COVID-19, which expired on June 24.

Schenectady County spokeswoman Erin Roberts also noted that the guidance was put in place prior to the approval of COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 12 to 17.

Three weeks into the new year, state Department of Health data paints a mixed picture for Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie counties.

For the first 20 days of 2022, the seven local counties reported 142% more lab-confirmed infections among residents than in the same period a year ago, plus an unknown number of positive tests with the at-home self-test kits. But the number of new positives is declining most days in most of the counties.

At this time last year, the seven-day average of positive tests for the seven-county area peaked on Jan. 8 at 10.8%. This year, that peak positivity rate nearly doubled, hitting 19.9% on Jan. 10, with multiple counties in the area seeing positive rates at 20% or higher.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID in January 2022 is well below the 2021 number in those counties, and about 30% of those now hospitalized weren’t admitted because of COVID symptoms — they have other problems, but happen to have a mild case of COVID as well.

Just 11 of the 398 people hospitalized with COVID in this area are school-age, 5 to 19 years old.

Finally, the number of resident deaths attributed to COVID in the first 20 days of this year is less than half the total for the same period of 2021.

“I think we are in a very different time now and have the ability to vaccinate,” said Albany County Commissioner of Health Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, whose county was the first in the area last year to implement the 4% threshold, “and we know this strategy can decrease transmission and disease severity.”

When the go-ahead finally came last January, it forced athletic directors throughout the region into a furious scramble. After months of waiting for a signal from state officials, they now had barely two weeks to try and cobble schedules together.

That work also came with the realization that, with the 4% threshold in place, everything had to be put together on a tenuous, day-to-day basis.

“So much of that was out of the school’s control,” said Saratoga Springs Athletic Director Nick McPartland. “That was the metric that we needed to hit, and every day you’re hitting refresh on the county dashboard to see where the numbers are [and] hoping to get to that number so you can press ‘go’ on the program that we’re waiting to get started.”

“We hoped and prayed, and a lot of it came down to how many people were being tested in certain areas,” Mohonasen Athletic Director David Bertram said.

Games last winter were largely played in spectator-free gyms with everyone required to wear masks. 

Masks are still mandated statewide inside school buildings, but proper mask-wearing among athletes has been spotty at best, with masks often worn around the chin and failing to cover an athlete’s mouth or nose.

Though the 4% threshold was a hard-and-fast benchmark in most area counties, Montgomery County adopted a hybrid solution. If the county’s rolling seven-day average was above 4%, teams in “high” risk sports couldn’t compete against teams from outside the county, but were able to play against in-county competition.

For Montgomery County, that meant nearly three weeks under those restrictions, until the positivity rate hit 3.9% on Feb. 25.

“We kind of felt like we were guinea pigs in terms of how we were going to do this and run things [with higher positivity rates],” Wilson said. “Everyone was looking at us, wondering when they were going to get the OK.”

When the disaster emergency declaration expired in June, that meant a change in how things operated.

The looming threat of a county going above 4% and causing a blanket shutdown was gone, replaced by schools putting individual teams on pauses and rescheduling games as positive tests popped up and quarantines were required.

Cancellations were commonplace during the fall as the delta variant began to emerge, and omicron’s spread has impacted dozens of games so far during the winter season — not only because of athletes or coaches testing positive, but also impacting the availability of officials or bus drivers.

“There still are challenges that we continue to face, day in and day out,” Bertram said. “It continues to happen. We’re numb to it now, because we’ve gone through it so much in the past year. We anticipate, make adjustments and pivot.”

A year after getting the signal, the light’s still more yellow than green. 

For now, the name of the game remains patience and flexibility.

“You don’t get too far ahead of yourself because there’s a change, whether it’s tied back to a regulation or a policy or just the data,” McPartland said. “You just have to get comfortable with the fact that you’re going to have to pivot again, and again, and again — and again.”

Gazette Business Editor John Cropley contributed to this report.

Categories: High School Sports, News, Sports

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