WATERTOWN — Part of the Watertown City School District Board of Education’s Tuesday night meeting was dedicated to discussing the risk factors that need to be taken into account regarding high school sports.
The city’s school district and its superintendent, Patricia A. LaBarr, are still deciding whether or not the district will participate in low- and moderate-risk sports this fall. Last week, Section 3 announced it would move forward with low- and moderate-risk sports beginning on Sept. 21.
Currently, Frontier League school districts are deciding whether they will abide by that schedule, or postpone until after Jan. 1. The Frontier League is hoping to hear that decision from each of its member schools on Wednesday.
During the BOE meeting, which was held at Case Middle School and streamed live on YouTube, the district’s Athletic Director George Emrich and district physician Dr. Benjamin Rudd presented to the board the various situations and challenges the school faces as it pertains to interscholastic athletics.
Part of the concern surrounding athletics is how it could possibly undermine the work schools have put forth in order to hold in-person learning.
“There are a couple of other physicians that I work with, and we put our heads together, we’re not real keen on the idea of intramural sports in general,” Rudd said. “The reason we aren’t is the rates of COVID-19 infection in our community at this time is fairly low, we want to keep it that way. We truly believe that much of that is because of the hard work the community is doing, social distancing and other things, to keep the virus spread down. If we start to erode away at some of those things, there could be an increased infection risk in the community.”
Dr. Rudd then posed what he believes is the ultimate question to the board: Where is the balance between taking risks regarding the infection rate of COVID-19 and supporting an extracurricular activity that is proven to be significantly important to its students emotional and physical health?
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer,” he added.
Part of the answer could be a partial fall season in which low-risk sports are played, but moderate-risk sports are not.
“I found out today (Tuesday) that we have a vote in the Frontier League per sport,” Emrich said. “I think that might actually work in our favor.”
Emrich mentioned how, with some creativity, sports such as tennis and cross country can implement rules to mitigate infection, i.e. tennis players can kick balls off the court to limit hand contact and cross country runners can put masks on when they’re in a crowd of other runners.
Both Emrich and Rudd have their concerns about soccer. The sport obviously requires close contact in order to be played.
Emrich noted how in Section 10’s Tuesday decision to allow sports, Section 10 Executive Director Carl Normandin said soccer teams would have to have mask and water breaks every 10 minutes. This would be an opportunity to pause play and allow athletes to take their masks off for a brief period of time. Emrich stated a desire for Frontier League schools to do that as well.
According to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association “Return to Interscholastic Athletics” guidelines, which were released on Sept. 4 and updated on Sept. 11, “a mandatory two (2) minute hydration/mask break will be taken at the first dead ball situation after the 20-minute mark.”
The “Return to Interscholastic Athletics” document outlines measures that should be taken for each fall sport.
“I think cross country is pretty safe and tennis relatively safe, swimming, with some modifications would be OK, soccer I’m a little nervous about,” Dr. Rudd said. “I’ve heard some people have said, ‘These kids are out there playing together anyway, they’re doing offseasons leagues and groups in Syracuse.’ That may be true, but that’s not really the question we’re answering. We only have what’s in our purview to answer.”
Rudd also mentioned how practices and games being held outdoors work in the favor of sports like soccer.
By mixing players on the field who may not be in the same cohort in school, you run the risk of undoing some of the progress the district has made, according to Dr. Rudd.
LaBarr wanted to discuss athletics with the school board so everyone would be informed of the risks involved with playing sports and the potential ways the district could make it work.
“We are always looking at the safety of our students first and foremost,” LaBarr said. “It’s been very difficult to just open this school and the education aspect of it, and now you want to talk about sports. We are making a decision that we never had to make before, quite frankly, and we want to make sure we’re making decisions that are in the best interest of our students.”